Essex has one of the largest populations of people affected by Asperger syndrome/High Functioning Autism (AS/HFA) in the country. AS/HFA is often poorly understood by health, mental health, education and social services professionals and as a result families are left isolated, dealing with unusual and difficult behaviour with little or no support.
In 1997 a group of parents of children with AS/HFA got together to try and do something to improve the situation for themselves and other families in Essex and started the parent support group ‘Supporting Asperger Families in Essex’ (SAFE). Since our first meeting in April 1997 we have been in contact with nearly 1000 families. Our membership is drawn from Essex, the southern half of Suffolk and the northern fringes of London. In addition to monthly meetings, we provide an email helpline. We run regular social skills training programmes, adult support groups, youth groups and social events for all ages. We campaign for better services and understanding for people with AS/HFA and their families around the county.
People with AS/HFA look like everyone else, but they experience fundamental social difficulties. They long for friends, to be accepted and to contribute to society. But they don’t know how. Society can be very unkind to people with poor social skills. Most of them suffer loneliness and bullying at school and fail to achieve their academic potential. Few adults with Asperger syndrome find employment, live independently or have a social life. The resulting frustration emerges as anxiety, depression, paranoia, aggression and frequently, suicidal ideation. Without support many may suffer from mental illness. However, with the appropriate support many are able to live meaningful lives and achieve their full potential.
This group of individuals struggles to find employment; they are typically unable to demonstrate their value when interviewed and need help to develop skills which will enable them to successfully access and maintain employment. Research has indicated that active intervention to provide key skills to people with AS/HFA will enhance their ability to live independent lives and gain employment. According to recent statistics, less than 10% of adults with autism live independently and only 6% hold down full-time jobs. One third suffer mental ill health, a figure that rises the later the diagnosis with many adults going on to experience severe depression due to their inability to interact socially.
SAFE provides individual support for its members through the Face-To-Face sessions carried out by its Development Worker. SAFE is seeking funding from the Aviva Community Fund to continue this vital work; it is the only charity in Essex with the experience and expertise to offer individuals with Asperger syndrome/High Functioning and their families guidance and advocacy in areas related to and affected by the condition.