As the author of this blog, I’ll introduce myself to you as a married mother of 2 young adults, one of whom is severely impacted by autism (without a learning disability). I have worked with children and young people for over 15 years, aged 2 – 30+ years old, many of whom were profoundly impacted by their autism and comorbid learning disabilities.
When I first suspected my child of being autistic at 4 years old, I found myself personally having to navigate a very complex process. I wasn’t in a position to give up work to support my son, so instead, in parallel with my career, I decided to work myself through NVQ’s through to University studying Childhood Development. This approach has most certainly given me dual experience – both through work and lived experience. I sometimes wonder how I did it!
My son is now 20 years old and there are currently no services in the county to meet his need. Therefore, he rarely leaves the house, he does not meet friends or access activities, and he currently cannot continue education or work. Personally, this fuels me to support other young autistic people like him.
About #team Synolos
After leaving my most previous job in social care, I joined Synolos sharing their passion to support young people who have disengaged from traditional education, mainly due to their poor mental health, behaviour that challenges, NEET (not in education, employment or training), for example.
Founded in 2010, Barry Ingleton created Synolos with merely a large bag of tools and a vision to support young disengaged people back into education by adopting an asset and strengths-based approach. Since launching, Synolos has supported over 600 young people and in 2017, moved from their former 1700ft premises into a new 6500ft self-customised building, consisting of a workshop, IT suite, enterprise room and meeting areas. Educational courses at Synolos include functional skills, carpentry & joinery, furniture making, photography, enterprise & business and creative crafts. Synolos aims to add new subjects over the next few years, and it is Synolos’ ambition to become a GCSE approved centre.
Synolos’ priority for 2021 has been to develop a new service specifically aimed to support young autistic people without a disability (formally recognised as Asperger's / high functioning autism).
What is autism
The National Autistic Society states that “Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. Like all people, autistic people have their strengths and weaknesses. Below is a list of difficulties autistic people may share, including the two key difficulties required for a diagnosis” (www.autism.org.uk).
- Social communication and social interaction challenges
- Repetitive and restrictive behaviour
- Over or under sensitivity to light, sound taste or touch
- Highly focused interests or hobbies
- Extreme anxiety
- Meltdowns or shutdowns
It is often the case that autistic people have a comorbid condition such as
- Complex learning disabilities
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia/dyspraxia/dyscalculia
- anxiety or depression or both
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
What is Synolos fundraising for? -
The objective of Step 2 of Connect 4 is to provide a wellbeing hub and safe space for young autistic people, aged between 14 - 30 years old.
All money raised through our campaign will be used as start-up funding for Step 2 of our newly developed Connect 4 service. We have a safe building and plenty of space within it, however, we have limited access to games, activities, etc., that our young people can freely access outside of, and during activities, workshops, etc.
We are working hard to acquire items, or raise money to purchase quality resources that will have appeal to young autistic people. The reason being, that many young autistic people find it difficult to leave their homes due to overwhelming anxiety, difficulties with transition and feelings of vulnerability. By providing exciting, tangible and meaningful resources that are not ordinarily accessible for young people, may act as a motivator for the young person to leave their home and to attend Connect 4.
We aim to purchase technological resources such as gaming consoles, high performance IT/gaming equipment, Cricut Maker and equipment, sublimation equipment, card games (Warhammer, Pokemon), widescreen TV’s, sensory equipment, cameras, animation software and associated resources, etc.
What is Connect 4, Step 2 at Synolos?
Please see our Connect 4 service via this link on our Synolos website for more details.
Connect 4 encompasses four specialist services forming an integrated pathway of support for young autistic people.
Step 1 – Outreach Support
Step 2 – Wellbeing hub
Step 3 – Destinations (Education pathway)
Step 4 – Traineeship
Young people can enter Connect 4 via any step and will be supported through an individualised and person-centred support plan. Throughout our young peoples’ Connect 4 journey, they will be working towards their own individualised short term, medium-term, and long term personal goals. Ultimately, young people entering Connect 4 will be encouraged and supported into further education, traineeship or paid employment in a bespoke and holistic way.
Step 2 is based on the traditional principles of a daycare setting, however, customised to meet the needs, expectations and cognitive ability of the young people whom we aim to support. The importance of having Step 2 in the connect 4 pathway gives young people a supported platform to make friendships, develop social skills, communication skills, confidence and resilience in a safe place, without the main priorities being focused on education or work. Synolos understands that for young people to develop and be education or work-ready, they need to feel good about themselves and feel more confident in a social environment.
After over a year of extensive research, meeting families, young people and learning from other professionals in Health and Social Care, including Primary (NHS), this is a unique opportunity for autistic young people to access a pathway of support, which consists of a baseline of support with a structured positive exit strategy for the young person. There are currently no similar services for young autistic people in West Oxfordshire.
"you'll certainly be hearing more from us, there is nothing else like it in Oxfordshire" - Specialist mental health nurse
Apart from consulting with local young autistic people and their families, we have met with a multitude of different professionals from doctors, mental health workers (psychologists, MH nurses), occupational therapists, housing officers, social workers, teachers, etc. They are all very optimistic about the service and agree this service could be very beneficial for autistic young people.
We aim to open the service over 3 days per week (one day being a Saturday), opening from 9 am to 4 pm on operational days. To promote independence and self-management skills, the service will operate similar to a hub and have free-flowing flexibility for all our members. For example, our members can come and go as they please, accessing the activities and resources that most appeal to them.
The 3 operational days will consist of a planned timetable of activities, learning opportunities and events. For Instance –
- Basket weaving with Katie
- PC Joe Blogs – County Lines Awareness
- Learn to make a curry with Pip
- Vinyl art with Vanessa
- Baking with Kelly
- Funny Creatures visit - reptile morning
- Computer Programming with Vic
- Green Screen animations and editing with Lee
- Photography classes with Lee
- Jenny from the Community project visiting to meet with members
- Woodwork with Olly
- Ben (from the garage) coming in to discuss working as a mechanic
*Please note, this is an example timetable
We are currently aiming to work on developing relationships with the police, fire service, town/district/county authorities, Job Centre, local businesses (to encourage careers discussions) and local artisans to provide a range of structured and supported activities. We also aim to include personal safety, self-management and introduction into work, training and education workshops.
Other activities might include outings to museums, zoos, garden centres, etc. So, we are providing our members with the opportunity to gauge an understanding of how best to support themselves as they become more independent.
Outside of timetabled activities, young people will be able to:
- access independent activities, such as computer gaming, knitting and textiles, online courses, arts & crafts, reading, etc;
- contribute in peer-led group activities, such as card games (Warhammer, Pokemon, Magic; The Gathering), group pc/console gaming, pool, etc);
- chill out in breakout spaces;
- Share drinks (coffee/tea/squashes) and snacks in a social environment;
- Generally, hang out with other like-minded autistic young people in a safe autism-friendly environment.
Synolos already encompasses a building large enough to home the wellbeing centre, and trained staff; many of who can provide a sound mechanism, supporting young people with their mental health. We intend on regularly sub-contracting a phycologist in the future to further support our members with their mental health needs, which is beneficial in the current climate when it is generally difficult for young people to access statutory services due to increased waiting lists. Synolos is also one of seven organisations in Oxfordshire to have a CAMHS Community In-Reach (CIR) worker in post.
Why is Step 2 / Connect 4 needed
Step 2 forms a fundamental service in the Connect 4 pathway. Step 1 being the baseline, we anticipate that we will support many recluse, isolated and physically/mentally unwell young people as they have gradually slipped into an unhealthy state of daily living.
Many young autistic people, particularly boys who become socially isolated, will seek refuge in the safety of their bedroom and rely upon the parents/carers to support them with their daily needs, such as cooking, cleaning, medication needs, form filling, etc. Many of these young people have already endured a traumatic childhood, whilst they have struggled for most of their lives to fit into society, mainly mainstream schools, receiving support when already a lot of damage has been done to the young person’s self-esteem and confidence. This then becomes an ‘unpicking exercise’, supporting the young person to overcome poor lifestyle choices, past experiences and trauma, before they are even in a suitable headspace to anticipate making any progression into bettering their life. Issues manifest such as poor sleep routines, including sleeping through the day and being awake all night, poor hygiene – finding it difficult to brush their teeth, bathe, shave and might not even see the point as they do not see anyone.
From the local survey we conducted, we found that –
- 37.93% of young autistic people do not attend school, college, volunteer or work;
- 62.07% of young autistic young people find it hard to leave their bedrooms;
- 6.90% of young autistic people accessed hobbies outside of their house (crafts, sports, clubs);
- 20.69% of young people cannot travel independently and need a parent or carer to support them.
- 24.14% of young autistic people said they are not comfortable around other people but would like more friends whilst 34.48% said they would prefer to mix with peers with a similar interest;
- 20.69% of young autistic people stated their family are their friends;
- 72.41% of young autistic people said their mum/dad/carer supports them;
- 62.07% of young autistic people do not have any support through statutory services
Step 2 aims to be: -
- Similar to a day centre, provide an enriching timetable of activities;
- a reason to get out of bed in the morning;
- a tangible reason to leave the house/work towards leaving the house;
- a safe environment specifically arranged to meet the needs of autistic people;
- staff who have understanding and knowledge of autistic young people, who can provide a wealth of support;
- a reason to move from step 1 to 2, and work towards accessing step 3 and 4
- tangible equipment and resources that may ‘act as a carrot’ for young people to access the centre and to subsequently, build upon their skills.
- Young people can access a range of workshops such as how to manage their money, how to stay safe online, how to be aware of different forms of exploitation, learn to cook, etc;
- Learn to travel in the community in a range of ways to become increasingly more confident to travel independently;
- Access professionals for independent advice in a safe way whereby they can become less reliant on their parents or carers for support, for instance, job coaches, housing officers, medical practitioners, etc.
Offer Social Opportunities
- To meet new people, create a friendship circle with likeminded young people;
- begin to develop social skills and confidence amongst new people, a transferable skill required in most places of employment;
- to develop communication and listening skills, a skill which cannot be achieved in isolation;
- begin to transfer friendships out of the wellbeing centre and meet independently outside of the sessions.
Support Young People to become EET (Employment, Education or Training) ready
- A discreet way of motivating young people to become more creative and consider returning to education or work with minimal pressure;
- a way of forming healthy routines – getting up in the morning, getting prepared (dressed) and leaving the house regularly;
- an opportunity to explore different professions and activities through our visitors and visits;
- social, emotional, confidence, self-esteem building in an already established education centre. The young person is more likely to access education and training in a place they are comfortable, or access outside opportunities with the staff they know and trust.