EVERYONE should be able live independently if they choose.

Whether its autism or a learning disability, no condition should stand in the way of self-sufficiency.

The UK is said to be 20 years behind the times when it comes to offering support for independent living.

But Bright Lives, a group specifically for people with autism and learning disabilities, realised the gap in provision and decided to take action.

Thanks to a £15,000 cash boost from the charitable organisation Colchester Catalyst, the group has built what is believed to be the UK’s first independent living resource centre.

The centre in Haven Road, Hythe, Colchester, is laid out like a flat with kitchen facilities, a washing machine and dishwasher.

There is also a computer room for students to research budgeting, meal planning and other vital life skills.

Michael Jones, chief executive of Bright Lives, said this is the group’s second centre which follows it taking over Abbots day centre in Ladbrook Drive, Colchester.

He said: “Independent living resource centres are in Canada and America, but the UK is about 20 odd years behind the times in terms of teaching people these skills.

“For the past four years we ran a pilot study from the Abbot Road centre which took eight students on a journey to learn how to live independently.

“They learn how to cook, how to use the internet, how to travel and how to build relationships with others.”

All the students have some form of autism or learning disability.

Michael said: “We build their confidence up as sometimes it’s not where it should be.

“When they start questioning what they can and can’t do and what is available to them in life, we transition them to the independent living resource centre.

“Here they learn how to use that confidence and self-esteem.”

The important thing about the training flat is staff can assess the level of support people need.

The kitchen, for example, is fitted with induction hobs so the students cannot burn themselves but can still learn to cook on their own.

Michael said: “In some cases there are people who can’t live on their own but can with some support.

“But then supporting someone too much can be more frustrating than not having enough, so without over protecting them we teach that person to grow.”

From the point of view of the social services team at Essex County Council, it saves time and resources when finding them suitable support.

It takes a lot of work as every case is different.

Autism is different from a learning disability in that those with autism can be more withdrawn.

Spending time on the internet observing others leading conventional lives can build frustration and ultimately some form of mental illness.

The Bright Lives programme is invaluable in preventing just that.

Tyler St George, 24, spent some time receiving mental health support before going to Bright Lives in 2016.

With the help of the charity, he was able to get himself a passport and go on an organised trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights last year.

Michael said: “Tyler has done all that in three years which is huge for him.

“When he came to us he was completely shut down, but now he is a different person and he has come to terms with his condition.

“He’s also volunteering with Help for Heroes as he has a passion for the Army.”

Tyler, who also has ADHD and Pathological Demand Avoidance, said he started Army training when he was 18 but was medically discharged.

He said: “Bright Lives is my second home and it’s like a family.

“I have disabilities but I always try to do everything I want to achieve.

“I love it here, I love the lessons and the sensory room and all the team because they understand me.

“Bright Lives is a safe place.”

The centre itself would not have been possible without the £15,304 grant from Colchester Catalyst.

The charity, which offers help to medical and healthcare causes, has supported the group from day one.

Michael said: “Catalyst has helped us right from the beginning, from when we wanted a sensory room about three years ago.

“We were new on the block but they took a punt and believed in us.”

Rodney Appleyard, development manager for Colchester Catalyst, said he could see the group’s potential from the start.

He said: “As we were talking Michael said he had a vision to set up this centre to help people stay independent.

“This was such a good vision and we were excited to see how you can equip these people to be self-sufficient and even change perceptions people have.”

Bright Lives only has ten staff but the small team has made such a huge difference to people’s lives.

The students can be heard chatting away to each other in the training flat.

The new centre may be the end of the learning journey for the staff, but it is only the beginning for these young people.

Bright Lives, which serves Colchester, Clacton, Harwich and Braintree, is rebranding and hopes to franchise in the next four years.

The aim is to set up 20 centres across Essex.

An open day being held at the centre in Haven Road, Colchester, on February 13 from 11.30am until 3.30pm.

There will be an autism trailer offering people insight into living with autism, which was donated by Training 2 Care.

To find out more about the work of Bright Lives visit www.brightlives.org.uk.

For more information about Colchester Catalyst visit ww.colchestercatalyst.co.uk.