Imagine not being able to understand the emotions of others, not being able to make friends and in some cases not even being able to talk.
That’s the reality for an estimated 700 children living with autism in Oxfordshire, according to the charity Autism Family Support.
Dealing with autistic behaviour can be a challenge for parents and teachers alike, and specialist support and care is much appreciated but hard to come by.
In a first for the county, next week two schools dedicated to meeting the specific needs of children with autism will oxpen their doors for the first time.
LVS Oxford, on the site of the former convent Begbroke Priory, will open on Tuesday to an initial intake of 16 pupils.
The charity-run school hopes to eventually cater for up to 70 autistic children between the ages of 11 and 19.
MacIntyre Academy is also due to open at the start of next month, in Waynflete Road, in Barton, Oxford.
Charity MacIntyre, which specialises in such schools, secured a £4.5m grant from Oxfordshire County Council to begin work on the ground-breaking project.
Many children with autism struggle to integrate into mainstream schools, and those who have acquired a special needs statement from the county council can enrol in these specialised schools.
Jane Straw, headteacher of LVS Oxford, said: “What we are doing is filling a gap, meeting the specific needs of young people with autism who struggle in a mainstream setting.”
She added: “The issue is most young people with autism struggle in crowded, noisy, bustling environments with lots of transitions. The parents of children who are coming here are delighted to have a local provision which meets the needs of children with autism.”
The LVS school will offer either day or week-long residencies for pupils. The residential provision on offer will be modelled on that of LVS Hassocks, in West Sussex, which was considered by Ofsted as an outstanding facility.
With moves like this, provision for people with autism in Oxfordshire is improving, but more can be done, says the county’s leading charity.
Autism Family Support, based in Worminghall, receives funding from Oxfordshire County Council, running play days and workshops as well as giving parents information and training.
However, with its main base so far from the centre of the county, it can be difficult to provide as much help as its officers would like. Project manager Gita Lobo said: “We have 1,400 families on our database and 18 new referrals per month but only two family support workers. The feedback from families is that what we do is good but there’s nowhere near enough of it.
“There’s not enough money to go around. What we are really after is a central location to make us more accessible to the 1,400 children, young people and adults known to us and their families.”
The over-subscription of Autism Family Support in the county led to the emergence of a parent-led charity to help extend services offered.
Oxfordshire Autistic Society for Information and Support (Oasis) was set up by parents of autistic children to provide extra support and care.
Charity member Christine Sturdy said: “It’s difficult to get services, which is why Oasis was formed. Autism family support is government-funded; they support parents and run their own play days. There’s such a need for them so they are fully subscribed. We can’t just put our children into a club or a crèche, our children need full-time one-on-one care.”
Oasis has over 100 members, all of whom have autistic children, who subsidise activities and play days throughout school holidays.
Not only do they give parents a break, but they also allow children to let off steam around people who understand.
It is not just the provision of specialist support and care that can improve the lives of autistic children. Raising awareness of the condition and educating those not on the autism spectrum is a vital part of the work done in Oxfordshire.
Autism Oxford specialises in training adults in a variety of professions to deal appropriately with autistic children and adults. The organisation has trained thousands of people including social workers, police officers, probation officers, health workers and teachers.
Autistic adults, with the help of the organisation, plan training sessions to help others understand their condition and how to interact with them.”
HELPING CHILDREN GET INTO ARTS CAREERS
Autism Family Support works in partnership with Oxfordshire Youth Arts Project (OYAP), which runs young leaders courses inspiring 18 to 25-year-olds who are looking to start creative careers.
OYAP offers courses for children with special needs, and its latest project has helped children on the autistic spectrum to explore their creativity and become more sociable in a relaxed environment.
Artist Ashton Mills, 26, who has autism, demonstrated his project Re-Resonate to a group of children on the autism spectrum.
The graduate relished the chance to give something back to OYAP after the trust helped him as a teenager.
He said: “It’s been a formative experience for me to see how what you do as an artist can change the lives of young people. It’s made me see my opportunity to use what I have to help other people. What I can offer is of use and I can develop myself and other people.”
He added: “I used to be in care when I was 18. My carer said he had a project for artists like me, a chance to progress. I got in touch with OYAP and it was the best email I’ve ever sent.
“Children on the autistic spectrum have trouble socially, but through art, space and sounds it can help. The more you put in the more you get out.”
Mr Mills, of Cowley, created software which turns any inanimate object into musical instruments.
The young autistic children collected various objects, from potatoes to cactii, and recorded sounds from them.
DAD SEES NEED FOR TEACHING SOCIAL SKILLS BUT PRAISES SUPPORT OF GROUP.
Established in 2002, Autism Family Support now supports more than 1,400 families across Oxfordshire affected in some way by autism.
The charity provides a range of services such as youth groups, workshops, social skills sessions and sex-education classes, all geared towards autistic people, bearing in mind their communication difficulties.
Paul Rennard is father of 13-year-old Fraser, who has a form of autism known as Aspergers syndrome – a form of autism where children might not have the associated learning difficulties.
Mr Rennard said: “The activities provided by Autism Family Support are fantastic and a lifeline for Fraser, giving much-needed social opportunities with support. It’s a shame there are not more activities and resources, particularly around learning social skills.”
The charity recently expanded to cater for young adults with autism; Oxford Aspies was set up in January last year. The informal social group meets regularly and is run by adults with Aspergers syndrome.
It also provides training for professionals and organisations likely to be confronted with autism. Courses include autism awareness and dealing with autistic behaviour at work.
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