Tessa Morton, Act for Autism

A photo of Tessa Morton and a colleague sitting at a table

Like many social entrepreneurs, Tessa’s enterprise grew out of her own personal experience – in this case her son’s autism.  Here’s her story….

In a nutshell:

  • Organisation: Act for Autism provides training, counselling, mentoring, film and theatre workshops for autistic children, their families and the wider community in Warwickshire.
  • Business model: Sales income from training contracts with the statutory sector, private schools and film sponsorship is used to fund theatre and film work.
  • SSE programme: Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Start Up Programme 2016/17,  jointly funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.
  • Supported by SSE in the Midlands

In the beginning

Tessa is the passionate mum of an autistic boy (now in his twenties).   She’s gone through the education system herself, so knows first-hand the problems faced by parents and their autistic children. “I just wanted to help my son in the beginning,” says Tessa.

There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK – that’s more than 1 in 100, according to the National Autistic Society. It’s a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. It is not an illness or disease and cannot be ‘cured‘.

Before founding Act for Autism, Tessa had spent over 15 years supporting autistic kids in her community through drama workshops. As a trained counsellor, she has also been supporting parents of autistic kids, helping them to manage their emotions and anxieties.

She soon joined forces with Jane Gurnett, a teacher at her son’s school, and Act for Autism was born. “Like myself, Jane is a former actress and drama teacher and parent to an autistic child. Together, we started to use drama based exercises to show teachers in the school how it feels for my son and other autistic kids. We were using strategies based on our experience as counsellors, parents and mentors, and involving the kids as much as possible.”

Because of council funding cuts, the need for autism support in schools and the wider community became greater. Tessa explains: “We’ve lost all our teaching assistants, so a child with autism really struggles at school. So much so that the child refuses to go to school. We work with kids whose sensory perception is different, so every learning is twice as hard. The school environment can be overwhelming for a child with autism”.

Impact of the programme

Tessa and Jane’s work in schools was getting such good feedback. Teachers were able to better understand what it was like to have autism, so better able to provide support. However it wasn’t yet a business, rather a passion project that Tessa tried to fit in between being a parent, and running her own counselling business.

“Before I joined the programme, Act for Autism was a disparate, ad-hoc set of activities. By the end of the course, it was a registered business, with a structure, a plan and a business model – plus a £40,000 training contract with Warwickshire County Council.”

For Tessa, the support of a community of like-minded social entrepreneurs who she met with every month was one of the most important aspects of the programme. “It spurred me on to be proactive and gave me focus. Meeting monthly forced me to commit to Act for Autism as a business – I wouldn’t have been confident enough to go for a £40,000 training contract with the county council if it hadn’t been for the SSE programme. The goals I set out at the beginning of the programme, we’d managed to achieve by the end.”

Future success

Tessa’s work has really taken off – with contracts with hospitals, schools and local authorities across the UK.  Act for Autism’s first film ‘Autism Voices’ won a prestigious award at the Golden Door Film Festival in New Jersey. Tessa and Jane regularly speak at autism conferences and are in demand across the UK for their unique training programmes.

Success has led to Tessa creating an autism conference in Warwickshire where she aims to bring together 300+ stakeholders – from schools, hospitals, councils and other agencies – to try to join up services for autism. “My vision is for the conference to be an annual event.”

She’s also planning to expand her online training offer through licensing the training programme she’s developed with Warwickshire County Council.

Tessa’s story doesn’t end here though, as she’s currently on the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Trade Up Programme at SSE London, aiming to increase her trading activity and impact. Watch this space!

Register interest in the programme

Top tip for other social entrepreneurs:

“The business head has to be as important as your passion for the project – don’t be embarrassed about being the business person”

Why not continue to follow Tessa’s success on  Twitter