Photos from Can't Sit Still project

Widening participation

The terms ‘Short Breaks’ and ‘respite care’ are often used differently by children’s and adult social care services. However, both are used to describe social care services providing specialist care and support to families of disabled children and adults.

Research conducted by Barnwood Trust in 2022 showed that families in Gloucestershire needed support to access the activities they wanted. From these findings we co-designed a funding opportunity with a group of parent carers, young people and people with experience of accessing Short Breaks.

Can’t Sit Still is one of six organisations awarded funding to deliver a year of Short Break activities. Freelance writer and producer Liz Bell is working with Can’t Sit Still to promote their creative clubs for autistic girls and non-binary young people in Gloucestershire.

To widen participation, we first need to change the conversation

Photos from Can't Sit Still project Photos from Can't Sit Still project







Can’t Sit Still (CSS) is an artist-led, non-profit organisation committed to disrupting social inequalities, connecting communities, and spreading joy through creativity and culture. By developing and delivering innovative, creative projects spanning theatre, circus, live music and more, the CSS team turns ideas, systems and people upside down – often literally!

In 2022, CSS partnered with Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire ICB to pilot ‘Being Me’ – a series of weekly creative clubs for autistic girls and non-binary young people. This pilot was hugely successful, with evaluation showing that it increased participants’ confidence, helped them to understand their identities, connected them with other autistic young people and their families​​, and enabled them to express and advocate for their needs.

Being Me clubs have since continued in South Gloucestershire, with participants and their families increasingly taking on roles in the project such as volunteering and fundraising. Now, as part of Barnwood’s Short Breaks funding programme, CSS is building even further on the existing success of the project by expanding both its scope and its geographic reach.

As an arts organisation CSS brings a unique perspective to the Barnwood programme, including when addressing the challenge of widening participation – a concept which, in the service-led world of social care, is often taken simply to mean ‘getting more bums on seats’.

But rather than seeking only to increase participation in a specific service or activity, CSS is establishing shared spaces in which people with experience of being socially marginalised can connect with and participate more fully in their own communities. In supporting autistic girls and non-binary young people to come together in a way and for a purpose of their own choosing, CSS is ‘widening participation’ in the most fundamental sense of the term.

CSS has a strong set of company values – radically caring, disruptively generous, stubbornly inclusive, courageously curious – upon which everything they do is built. This approach is supported by an open acknowledgement in their mission statement of the risks that ‘doing things differently’ entails: “We won’t always get everything right, but we promise to learn.”

It is this willingness to experiment; to listen, rather than tell; that creates the conditions for widening participation. At CSS, this mindset informs every aspect of the organisation, from the way in which it recruits its teams to the funding partnerships it chooses to enter into. It even underpins how the organisation captures and acts upon learning, for example through paid reflective practice sessions that offer all staff a regular opportunity to reflect upon, develop, and expand their approach. Not only does this encourage a more collaborative and less hierarchical way of working, but it also supports the development of new participatory projects and opportunities that are owned by the communities they exist to serve.

Organisations like CSS represent a vital component of our shared VCS ecosystem here in Gloucestershire, in that they challenge us all to think differently about things we take for granted. If we are serious about widening participation, we need to acknowledge and embrace the transformative value of this difference.

Written by Liz Bell on behalf of Can’t Sit Still

Can't sit still logo

Can’t Sit Still currently operates two ‘Being Me’ clubs in Cheltenham, for ages 11-16 and 17-25. These clubs are each led by a neurodivergent facilitation team and involve a range of optional creative activities, codesigned with the participants. Participants can choose to join in or join out, creating an environment in which they can just ‘be’ alongside other autistic people. For more information about the Being Me project, visit: