Olympians back autism


Olympic cycling star Jess Varnish has thrown her weight behind plans for a new autism school in the city.

The Hearts and Minds Challenge, a charity dedicated to supporting families touched by autism, aims to fundraise £1 million for an Autism School of Excellence.

Jess Varnish and Liam Phillips – who both represented Team GB at London 2012 – have pledged their support for the plans. Jess is set to take part in a sponsored cycle challenge to help the charity reach its fundraising target, and is calling on people to join her on the bike ride.

The cycle ride will be setting off from Malaga on 23 May, on a four day biking challenge that will finish in Gibraltar. The charity’s patrons, Keith Duffy and Paul Scholes, will also be joining Jess for the bike ride.

Jess, who competed alongside Victoria Pendleton at the Games, said: “The Hearts and Minds Challenge has made huge progress towards reaching its fundraising target. We now want to rally as many people as possible to join us on the charity ride, and help us fund a new school that will transform the lives of autistic children”.

“Pedaling across Spain might sound like a pleasant ride, but cycling 300 miles in four days is no mean feat. Everyone taking part will definitely be earning their sponsorship!”

The new school will initially teach 25 pupils, aged three to 11. Comprehensive evaluations for each student will be carried out to identify their personal strengths and needs, and bespoke programmes will be developed and tailored to each individual.

All classrooms will have five pupils with one teacher and two teaching assistants. The centre will also offer an on-site occupational therapist and two speech and language therapists, who will work closely with the children. As well as working on academic skills, they will encourage the development of the pupils’ social and verbal abilities.

The centre will also provide family counselling, training for parents and training for emergency services personnel on the best way to approach autistic people they may encounter in their work.

Ian McGrath, founder of Hearts and Minds, said: “The cycling challenge will provide a huge boost towards reaching our fundraising target for the Autism Centre of Excellence. We’re absolutely thrilled to have the support of Jess Varnish and Liam Phillips, who should keep us on our toes when it comes to ensuring we’re up to speed!”

“We are currently looking at a number of potential locations for the school and hope to move this forward very soon. Early intervention can be very beneficial to young people with autism, so we are dedicated to providing them with an opportunity to attend a school that is catered to their needs.”

The charity is currently looking for anyone interested in supporting the bike ride or taking part in the team. More information can be found on the charity’s website:


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