AN AUTISTIC North East business owner has used her own experience to create inclusive and immersive events for children.

Katie Toner (27), who lives near Prudhoe, launched Dark Sky Sleepovers this year, which provides themed sleepovers, day events and home cinema.

Two years ago, Katie was diagnosed with autism.

"I used to pretend that everything was fine when it wasn't," said Katie.

"I wondered why I was different, and why I felt like a freak and a weirdo. I thought that was just the way life was - until I got my diagnosis.

"I'd always struggled with anxiety symptoms, and it was only when my younger brother was diagnosed with autism at the age of 10 that it came onto our radar. Now I understand that being autistic isn't the issue - living in a world that isn't built for it is."

Katie's dad John tragically lost his life in 2007 when she was only 12 in a motorcycle accident near Darlington, while taking part in a fundraising ride in aid of the Great North Air Ambulance.

And following a spell in hospital in April this year, Katie also began the process for a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder which weakens connective tissues supporting the skin, bones and blood vessels.

Despite this, Katie said she is determined to use her experience positively to succeed in business, and launched Dark Sky Sleepovers in April from her hospital bed, with support from the Government-funded Access to Work scheme and Spectrum Enterprises Community Interest Company (CIC).

Each themed event provides made-to-measure sensory stimulation built around an indoor sensory tent, customised with a range of touch, sound and vision experiences.

Katie said seeing the positive reaction to her sleepover and party events from children with a range of needs keeps her going.

"It's really special when a child who could feel left out elsewhere can feel there's a place just for them," said Katie.

"When I plan each set-up, I try to create something magical, something they'll never have experienced.

"It's the details people notice - that's something I really look for."

She added: "I'm proud that my business is run by an autistic person that is ADHD, especially if I can show others in my situation that they can do it.

"I don't think I'm anything special, I'm lucky to have the support I need to help me thrive."

Dark Sky Sleepovers covers the entire North East region.