Helping adults with autism live independent lives

Pictured at Autism Initiatives' office in the Waterside are Margaret McLean, Floating Housing Support Worker, Frank Nelis, Bryan Sutherland and Dale Mitchell, Service Manager.
Pictured at Autism Initiatives' office in the Waterside are Margaret McLean, Floating Housing Support Worker, Frank Nelis, Bryan Sutherland and Dale Mitchell, Service Manager.
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Among the biggest concerns for many people with Autism or Aspergers and their families is the ability to deal with day-to-day tasks at home and the ability to live independent lives.

A ground-breaking project in the North West is helping those affected by Aspergers and acquire the life skills to do just that, and this week the ‘Journal’ spoke to two local men who have benefited as a result.

Margaret McClean (left) Autism Housing Float Support, Sinead Twomey Autism Housing and Development Manager, Hazel McClelland Housing Support Manager NIHE, Dale Mitchell Service Manager Autism Initiatives NI and Alicia Munoz-Herrero Autism Housing Float Support pictured at the relaunch of the Autism Initiatives Housing Floating Support for Adults with Autism in the Autism Initiatives NI offices Clooney Terrace.  DER0616GS051

Margaret McClean (left) Autism Housing Float Support, Sinead Twomey Autism Housing and Development Manager, Hazel McClelland Housing Support Manager NIHE, Dale Mitchell Service Manager Autism Initiatives NI and Alicia Munoz-Herrero Autism Housing Float Support pictured at the relaunch of the Autism Initiatives Housing Floating Support for Adults with Autism in the Autism Initiatives NI offices Clooney Terrace. DER0616GS051

With funding from the Housing Executive, through its Supporting People Programme, Autism Initiatives has been changing the lives of local adults living with Autism by helping them with skills and tasks such as housing issues, cooking, cleaning, money management, paying bills and contacting authorities.

Autism Initiatives General Manager Dale Mitchell said: “The nature of the service is independent living, or helping people who are managing affairs in their home as well.

“What we are finding is that there are more and more people who have autism who haven’t had much support, emerging from the community in need of support. Maybe they have struggled in a lot of ways up to this point in independent living - doing fantastic in some areas and needing a wee bit of support in others. That is where we can come in then and help those people, and that maybe the first time they get support.”

The service is delivered on the ground by a small, highly regarded team of Floating Housing Support Workers, with Margaret McLean and Alicia Munoz Herrero based in Derry, and their colleague Patricia Irwin based in Omagh.

Margaret said that one client, who has an IQ of 130 and is a member of MENSA, herself questioned the merit of being highly intelligent if you had trouble sweeping the floor.

“We have clients in college, in work, but who would struggle with organising other things such as cleaning or cooking. That can spiral and have a knock-on effect on confidence and cause anxiety.

“With Aspergers and Autism, sometimes it’s difficult for the clients to express themselves, some of our clients wouldn’t have that confidence. Alicia has done loads of work in helping them, even with money management and things like that, and when you have to make calls to different agencies to sort out things like bills, things that can be quite daunting and can cause anxiety.

“There are so many people out there that cannot ask for help themselves or don’t know where to go to so we can reach out to them.”

Frank Nelis (52), who lives in Pennyburn, has been using the Floating Support Service since the end of last summer.

He said: “They are lovely people. Margaret comes in and sees me, she always has a smile on her face and she is always laughing. She is good fun so she is. She is always in good humour - you don’t get many people like that.

“She comes every Wednesday. If I have any problem I’ll talk to her and she’ll say, ‘We are here for you and if you don’t want to do anything just say, we won’t get offended’.”

Frank said the weekly visits have made a big difference in his life. “We talk, ‘how’s things?’ Do you need a hand with this, do you need a hand with that?’ She is nice. She is one in a million.

“If you need them they are there for you. Margaret is a ray of sunshine. It’s great so it is.”

Bryan Sutherland (28) originally from Inverness and living in the Waterside, has been availing of the Floating Support service for two years, and has been involved with various Autism Initiatives projects for almost a decade.

Bryan said: “This is brilliant. Margaret is very helpful and if there is a problem she phones and we can rearrange any issues.

“They have been with me, on and off, guiding me. I have got friendship, companionship, guidance, housing support. When I had an issue with housing, I had a fall-back, almost like a network.

“There’s phone support- they are not there holding your hand. They give you the booklet, they point you in your own direction and let you go your own wee way, but if you do struggle, you can fall back on them. They are not forcing you or guiding you to where you have to go. They let you make your own wee mistakes. But if you make a mistake they help you correct them.

“So far Margaret has helped me with my shower unit, getting railings for my house, problems with nuisance, when I had any issues I have had someone point me in the direction I need to go. At the end of the day, they always look after you and they have always got your back.”

Bryan said he would also like to see group recreational activities, trips and programmes for autistic adults reinstated and built upon in the North West, and Dale said that they were determined to do this, subject to funding being secured.