The number of children being correctly diagnosed with autism has soared over recent years as a direct result of heightened awareness and understanding of the condition.
While today there are a number of local organisations and grass roots clubs in the north west doing great work with children with autism, one pioneering Derry-based organisation has over the past 10 years been proactively addressing the isolation and challenges adults with an autism spectrum condition often encounter.
There is still very few services out their adults. It should be everyone’s right to go out and live by themselves and have this active citizenship but without this service a lot of people on the autism spectrum are not going to get that opportunity.Dale Mitchell, Autism Initiatives
As part of its work at present, Autism Initiatives is helping adults from 18 and up to develop the life skills which will help them live independently - with very encouraging results to date.
As well as providing a drop-in centre at their base at Clooney Terrace, Autism Initiatives also helps people develop their own talents, skills and affords opportunities for men and women to join groups that interest them and increase their social interaction.
Speaking at their current base on Clooney Terrace, Autism Initiatives Service Manager Dale Mitchell spoke of its small beginnings through to becoming a vital service that services the western region.
He said: “When we started off it was a pilot service catering for four people and it was really a befriending service. At that point we were getting our referrals from all around the place- there was no specialist autism team.
“With speaking to those people as referrals built up, the one thing that really hit us was the isolation, the loneliness with the condition. People really felt they were alone with it, they didn’t know anybody else with it, so we wanted to develop this one stop shop idea, a meeting place where people could come in, a safe place, a non-judgemental place, somewhere where their peers could support them and understand them.”
And that is exactly what happened. By listening to people with autism conditions, the people at Autism initiatives were able to develop something that catered for multiple needs, with Housing Floating Support, Community Outreach, Adult Peer Group, Drop In service and User Forum making up the ‘Five Point Star’.
“Today we have anywhere up to 30 people coming in with the various groups we have on during the week, the drop-in groups,” Dale said.
“The various drop in groups are self-run by service users so it’s been developed over time. The One Stop Shop idea is it’s a gateway service- because it’s a life long condition, people can access our services whenever they want.
“We have gaming groups, men’s support groups, adult peer groups, photography club. It’s a safe place people can come in and if they’ve had a rough day, they can sit by themselves or go down and read a book or go on the computers in the IT suite. Just to feel safe. They can get overwhelmed very easily with various things, sensory overload or just having a bad day, so people can come in here to recover a bit.
“It’s wonderful when you see these highly intelligent people in many cases who have just had a hard time of it and after a few weeks they are smiling again and happy with life. That’s what makes it a vocation for us.”
One of the most dramatic impacts on the lives of adults with autism is via the Housing Floating Support.
There are around 30 people being supported in the whole Western Trust area via the project, which is funded by Supporting People through the Housing Executive and has been running for three years.
“We go and out and support people in their own homes to live independently.
“It’s a specialist service; it’s autism specific. We have been going now with this for around three years and we have worked really closely with the [Western] Trust.
“What we are trying to do now is we are trying to go out and reach those people who are living by themselves who haven’t really any involvement with anybody else, or have slipped through the net, I suppose. People who haven’t been getting the support they have needed. We have close links with statutory services but we are trying to get those people who maybe aren’t involved with those services.
“We have service users from Limavady right down to Fermanagh. It’s a large enough service and we are trying to tell people about it.
“We have some key areas- enjoy and achieve; making positive contribution; money management; safety and security; and emotional and physical well being. We support somebody with anything that is a threat to their tenancy at all- it could be daily living skills, could be going out shopping, budgeting money, cooking for yourself, maintaining your home, disputes with neighbours, trying to integrate them into whatever groups or hobbies or interests they like. What we are doing is all about empowerment and it is about helping them to be active citizens.
“There is still very few services out there for adults. It should be everyone’s right to go out and live by themselves and have this active citizenship but without this service a lot of people on the autism spectrum are not going to get that opportunity.”
Dale said that many parents with an adult autistic son or daughter were often anxious about what the future will hold for them.
He said: “We are coming across that more and more, where there are elderly parents and they have come to us and they are really anxious. Their adult child has become very dependent on them and has got very used to their routine of doing things and family life, but change is inevitable and they are anxious that their adult child is not going to be ready for a sudden change possibly and that sudden independence as well.
“A lot of people find it very difficult to imagine when mum or dad isn’t going to be there as well, so floating support like this is invaluable and brings peace of mind to families as well.”
Dale said that it was amazing and very satisfying to see a person who is initially incredibly anxious and fearful exit the service “managing their independence better than you or I”.
“It’s a service for up to two years, but it’s based on a person’s need so it could be a month or two years and we can float in and float out again above and beyond that.”
Anybody wishing to contact Autism Initiatives about Floating Housing Support or any of its other services can telephone 02871 318172 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or check out Facebook page: One Stop Shop Lderry.