Autism, coffee, chaos and cake - POCA’s perfect mix

Parents and children taking part in the activities at the POCA (Parents of Older Children with Autism) weekly youth club at Pilot's Row. (3004PG92)
Parents and children taking part in the activities at the POCA (Parents of Older Children with Autism) weekly youth club at Pilot's Row. (3004PG92)

A club formed to help Parents of Older Children with Autism - POCA, celebrates its first anniversary this month, Journal reporter LAURENCE MCCLENAGHAN, talks to the founders about the remarkable journey they and their children have embraced in that time...

Edel Canning began POCA in order to help her then 12 year old son, Eoin, through the summer holidays, she explains: “I hadn’t met anyone who faced the issues I did, such as the need for a social outlet for older children with ASD (Autistic Spectrum disorders). I hosted a coffee morning thinking I could organise a few activities for the children throughout the summer. I thought perhaps four or five parents would attend, I was shocked when 25 families turned up. From then I knew there was a desire for this and it grew from that.”

The youth club started last May on a trial basis but due to the success and the regular number of users the club was soon made a permanent fixture at Pilot’s Row.

Eoin loves the POCA club: “It is great,” he said. “I’ve made friends here. We do everything from flying kites to animation workshops. We’ve probably done far too much,” he laughed. “This summer we are planning on going surfing. POCA is a really good idea and I am glad it started.

“My favourite thing is the random magical cakes left by the cake fairy,” he laughed.

“There is always tea, coffee and cake,” added his mother.

Eoin attended his first overnight residential this past weekend. It was the first time he ever stayed away from his mother. Clearly the club has been a substantial boost to Eoin’s personal and social development.

“It is” said Edel, “an all encompassing club which brings together children and parents who face similar tests and challenges. It is very unstructured which we believe is why it works. We are getting results for members. We offer a wealth of activites, games and sports, which are all provided in a family friendly environment. Siblings of autistic brothers and sisters attend too. There are grandparents playing football, as well as fathers and mothers doing everything from arts and crafts, to simply eating cake with their children.

“We find cake is the perfect antidote to the chaos when it does happen,” laughed Edel. “Obviously there are breakdowns and such but as everyone is used to it, it doesn’t become the be all and end all of the sessions.”

Little wonder then that 15 - 20 families use the POCA club on a weekly basis.

“POCA is a brilliant place for parents to come to, free and easy going,” said co-founder Roisin Lyndsay. “We look forward to each and every Friday. We expect figures to grow during the summer holidays. We provide activities during school breaks also.”

In addition to celebrating their first anniversary, POCA are also helping shape future provision and services for their children. Last week members addressed the all party group on autism at The Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont. An experience they described simply as; “worthwhile.”

Other similar groups have also contacted POCA with a view to copying their model elsewhere. Yet the main achievement of the group, insisted its founders, is the spirit of togetherness engendered at the club.

Edel said: “We exist to provide parent led activities for older children with autism. As parents are present we inevitably find ourselves comparing notes on everything from homework to the onset of teenage years.

“It is important that we socialise with our children, and the fact we do, gives us additional strength and support. While it is an easy and simple idea, the parent led model works. It works for families but most importantly it really works for the children.”

Michelle Brattin, whose son, Jackson, 12 attends the club said: “He has come out of his shell and interacts with people much better. In fact he interacts here much better than he ever did at school. I really would like to see the services developed further.”

Michelle McGrotty’s ten year old son, Pauric describes the meetings as: “His only social outlet, he can’t go anywhere else but he wouldn’t miss this. It is the highlight of his week. Pauric feels comfortable because there is a level of understanding between the users which allows them to relax more. It also allows me, as a parent, to relax. As well as that, it is great to get sitting down for a cup of coffee when he runs off to play with friends,” she smiled.

The relaxed environment is something also appreciated by Declan McSwiney from Carnhill: “My son Oisin uses the services, I am not as worried about him as I would be if he attended a typical youth club. Oisin organised a pirate and princess party here last week, there was a time when that level of undertaking would have been beyond him. I still remember the first day we attended Pilot’s Row. We stood outside looking in for 15 minutes, then he made us leave. It’s been a gradual process but now he has come out of himself and walks about like he owns the place.”

Perhaps the last word on POCA is best left to volunteer leader, Josh Barr, 16, he described it as; “One big family, one big awesome family.”

In order to mark the first anniversary,

POCA have a number of fundraisers, including a coffee morning at Austins on May 17, a quiz night in Da Vinci’s on May 30 and an art competition throughout May.

Search for POCA on facebook or log onto www.POCA-Derry.com or call Edel on 07542016151.