Sophie Gray from Latimer's Seafood with Claude the crab
Sophie Gray from Latimer's Seafood with Claude the crab
Kathryn Clapham

Claude Packs His Bags In Hope Of Holiday Heaven

A successful north east campaign from Latimer’s Seafood to raise awareness of autism, supported by NHS Health Education England, is now hoping to go international as its fishy mascot ‘Claude the Crab’ appeals to the public for a summer vacation.

Sophie Gray, a 19-year old employee of Latimer’s Seafood who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism, when she was 13, designed 50 ‘Claude the Crab’ clay models last year and hid them among the north east coast as part of a competition to raise awareness of the condition.

Now Claude, who is feeling a bit crabby and would love to join the jet set and relax his claws, is looking to spread his message far and wide about autism in the workplace and be an inspiration to other people affected by autism.

Sophie’s story was covered extensively in the media throughout last year as a result of her fronting the Latimer’s #autismawareness campaign. She spoke on BBC Radio Newcastle, and to thousands of readers across the region in a bid to raise awareness of the benefits to businesses of employing those with Autism and Autism related conditions and other learning disabilities.

Most recently Sophie penned her own story shared through the NHS transforming care partnership network comprised of groups, communities and other support networks, to inspire others in a similar position to have the courage to follow their ambitions.

An assistant at the well-known seafood deli and cafe for three years, Sophie, from Whitburn in South Tyneside, has battled to overcome her difficulties in social situations. She is continuing to impress her employer and develop her career, showing that having Asperger’s syndrome doesn’t mean a life with limits, and is now studying a glass ceramic degree at Sunderland University alongside her part-time role.

Sophie said: “The continued understanding of my employers and co-workers has allowed me to hold down my part time job and study without the fear of work related anxiety affecting my grades. That’s why it’s so important to me to inspire others to feel empowered to follow their dreams by continuing to front the Latimer’s #autismawareness campaign.

“It was also a wonderful opportunity to combine my arts and crafts passion with my Latimer’s work when I created Claude the crab from clay. And now he’s back again but only briefly before he’s Claude Abroad!”

Tom Purser, head of campaigns at the National Autistic Society, said: “More and more organisations, like Latimer’s Seafood, are recognising the potential of autistic people and the benefits of a diverse workplace.

“Yet the number of autistic people in work remains shockingly low. Our research suggests this is in large part due to lingering misconceptions around what autism is, as well as companies not knowing where to go for support and being worried about getting it wrong.

“We’re campaigning to close the autism employment gap and important part of this is sharing positive stories, including Sophie’s and her employers, who were shortlisted for our Autism Professionals Awards last year.

“Not all autistic people are able to work. But the vast majority tell us that they want to find a job that reflects their talents and interests. With a little understanding and small adjustments to the recruitment process and workplace, autistic adults can be a real asset to all sorts of businesses.”

Karen Booth is head of the Post 11 Autism Centre at Jarrow School where Sophie spent two years after being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 14 years old. She said: “When Sophie first came to us she was non-verbal a lot of the time and it took weeks before she was able to talk to anyone. She was, however, obviously determined and very bright and soon able to fully integrate with pupils and staff from both within the Centre and the school at large.

“To see her now confidently fronting a campaign designed to raise awareness of Autism in the work place and talk enthusiastically about following her dreams studying a creative degree at Sunderland University at the same time as holding down a part time job is wonderful. She really is an inspiration.”

Learning Disability Workforce Specialist Charlotte Carr of NHS Health Education England said: “We are delighted to share Sophie’s story as an inspiration to others and we’ve shared it right across our northern network of organisations, voluntary groups and communities for this reason.

“We particularly appreciate the individual approach that Robert and Ailsa, owners of Latimer’s Seafood, have taken to Sophie and their staff in general. I support fully their campaign to raise awareness of Sophie and her successes so that other employers may give someone with a learning disability, autism, or both an opportunity to shine.

“The NHS Long Term Plan, announced this year, sets out its priorities for healthcare over the next 10 years and tackling health inequalities faced by people with autism and learning disabilities, along with increasing opportunities for supported employment are both highlighted as a key priority.”

Ailsa, co-owner of Latimer’s Seafood, said: “We love Sophie and she is still working with us after three years, now supporting her art and design degree at Sunderland University. The fact she has Asperger’s syndrome, an Autism related condition, has never been an issue for us.

“All our staff are treated as individuals and we hope that we recognise that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and we’re all different. It’s how we at Latimer’s develop people; if you have the right attitude we’ll work with you to help you flourish.”

Family-run, award-winning, Latimer’s Seafood Deli & Cafe in Whitburn, South Tyneside, started off selling lobster from the back of the petrol station, and has since earned a string of accolades including ‘Fishmonger of the Year’ at the Farm Shop & Deli Awards and BBC Radio 4 ‘Best Local Retailer’.

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