...For 17-year-old Paul James Pilcher, or PJ as he prefers to be called, Cirque Nova is his "second family". He said: "Ever since I saw Zippos Circus as a young boy, my passion has been clowning and I've learned the routines of all the great clowns, from Charlie Chaplin to Roly Bain, off by heart."
PJ, who lives in Greenwich and attends Charlton special needs school in Woolwich, says that the other children used to mock him about his clowning.
But since he joined Cirque Nova six months ago, adding physical comedy, balloon sculpture and juggling to his act, nobody makes fun of him any more.
"My dad [a retired postman] explained to me that I'm in the middle of the autistic spectrum," he said. "It means I find it hard to look people in the eye and I get distracted. When you are autistic, it can be hard to fit in, but since I discovered Cirque Nova, I'm living the dream."
PJ's carer, Berenjer Allee, 27, says the change in him has been "dramatic", adding: "In the past, PJ was unable to cross the street without holding my hand. He needs routine and he panics if something unexpected happens, but because of Cirque Nova, his fitness has improved, he's lost weight, and his confidence has grown so he no longer needs me to hold his hand. Soon he'll be independent enough to attend classes on his own."
Another regular is Jamun Miah Aziz, 26, who has Asperger's and was referred by Centrepoint when he was homeless three years ago.
He insists Cirque Nova has been the making of him. "I grew up in Crystal Palace to Bangladeshi parents and ran away at 18," he said. "My life was a mess, but Jean-Marie got me back on track. I used to be a very quiet person. Now I engage people."
"When Jamun started with us," added Mr Akkerman, "he was scruffy, smelly and had zero confidence. Today he has developed an aerial act and he is our star visual artist - he does drawings of the other performers live on the show that we display on a giant screen. He's no longer homeless and will look you in the eye"...
...Cirque Nova will perform free on September 3 at the Southbank Centre. See the National Theatre website for details...
What it does: Weekly circus skills training for people aged seven to 35 who are disabled or from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those with autism, Down's syndrome, the visually impaired and people in wheelchairs. It teaches trapeze, acrobatics, juggling, clowning and acro-balance.
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My three sons attend sessions here every Saturday and my eldest who has Asbergers syndrome has taken to it like a duck to water. He practises at home juggling hoops and balls and doing acrobatics with his brothers at every opportunity. He also works on his magic and balloon modelling skills and at 14 has begun working towards a career as a children's entertainer.
He knows that his temperament and character would never allow him to last long in any normal nine to five job.
Thank you Jean Marie, and thank you Evening Standard for helping fund this vital resource.
- Olli, London England, 26/07/2011 19:52