Dartford, Gravesend and Swanley have seen a flurry of recent activity around Autism Awareness and support for Autism families. Autism affects at least 1 in 99 people, but it is the whole family that is affected. Very often families can feel isolated, alone and mis-understood. Statistically that is over 1000 families in Dartford, 660 families in Gravesham and 166 families in Swanley. However, a group of people have been proactively bringing about a change and increasing awareness and understanding of the condition. Councillor (Cllr) Mandy Garford from Dartford is a mum of autistic children, also a qualified teacher who went on to work with autistic children and now an autism consultant has been raising awareness in Dartford and encouraging the community to become Autism friendly. As a local Councillor Mandy has had meetings with various council members to involve the community at all levels. Tim Cook, The Family Liaison and Outreach Officer for The Helen Allison School run by the National Autistic Society (NAS) has been running support groups in Gravesend and been a part of the Multi Agency Autism Group. Mandy and Tim, along with a team of dedicated volunteers, are setting up a proposed branch of the NAS for Dartford, Gravesend and Swanley and the hive of activity is already underway.
In February, the Helen Allison School held a well attended employment event to highlight the benefits of employing an autistic person. Currently only 16% of people on the autistic spectrum are in full time employment. Organised by Tim Cook, the event gave local politicians and businesses insight into the life of an autistic person and the difficulties they might face.
Due to the increase in autism awareness Stephen Oliver, a celebrated local artist, approached Cllr Mandy Garford with a proposal for an Art of Autism exhibition, to feature art works produced by local children on the autistic spectrum. Stephen Oliver and Mandy Garford contacted all local schools resulting in the current highly acclaimed and successful exhibition displaying the children’s works of art. Stephen Oliver has given up his gallery for the
whole of April to display the Art Of Autism and help raise Autism Awareness. The Private View at the launch of the exhibition saw the proposed NAS branch team attending to further raise awareness through discussion and the handing out of information to parents, carers and those with an interest in autism.
Whilst taking her children to the special needs dentist, and in conversation, the dentist told Mandy Garford that there was an Art exhibition in Dartford, unaware that Mandy had helped to organise the event. She went on to say that some of her patients (children) who wouldn’t normally speak because of anxiety had told her all about their work being displayed in a real gallery. Their confidence and self esteem has been massively boosted by the Art of Autism exhibition. It has been such a success that other areas are thinking about how they can replicate what has been done in Dartford.
Talks to set up a local National Autistic Society branch were ongoing and a committee was set up. Matt Lynch, who has autism and was a former pupil of The Helen Allison School, joined the committee. Matt is excellent at producing flyers and using social media and utilised his skills to signpost groups that already existed. Facebook pages were created to act as a focal point for autism support and information. Existing support includes Friday mornings coffee morning in Gravesend, a group called The Father’s Club and The Multi Agency Autism Group. This group was started by Dr Hegde of DVH as a direct result of the lack of support for families and runs monthly talks to inform and support families, carers and professionals on aspects of autism. You can find more information on Facebook pages “Multi Agency Autism Group”, “Autism South East” and also a group “Autism Gravesend and Dartford”.
As April drew closer things got busier to coincide with Autism Awareness. The proposed committee stewarded NAS stalls in Asda and Sainsburys in Gravesend with lots of advice and information leaflets given out. The team supported Hartley Go Build Lego group with their autism awareness stall. Not only have they been asked to bring the stall to other places to share information, but other people have asked how they can share Autism Awareness too.
Cllr Mandy Garford arranged a ‘What is Autism?’ day in Dartford. Autism Experts visited Dartford to deliver talks and answer questions invited by Mandy and supported by the proposed NAS branch. Steve Vincent (autism consultant), Katrina Adams (Beams, formerly Parents Consortium) and Jo Blamires (Kent Autistic Trust) spoke to groups of people from the local area throughout the day at the Meeting Place, Orchards Shopping Centre. To have the expertise available was a welcome opportunity to many people in Dartford.
An issue raised by many parents is that school holidays present a very real problem for families of Autistic children. Although awareness is increasing many families find their children’s behaviours judged by others and so accessing parks can present a minefield of potential difficulties. With this is mind The Helen Allison School threw open their grounds to families with an ASD child to offer a safe and understanding environment. Sheerness Bouncy Castles kindly donated 2 bouncy castles, soft play and a candy floss machine to make the day a real success. Approximately 150 children and families enjoyed a relaxed and fun filled day. One parent said on the feedback form “A lovely day being in a place where we are free from judgement and knowing everybody understands, this has been a real triumph we have loved it. Very relaxed, feeling secure in the venue leads to relaxed parents and happy children”. Another mum, Natalie Chapman said ‘I walked in and when Tim said ‘there is only one exit here so don’t worry about the kids escaping’ I knew I could relax. You just don’t get that anywhere. It’s so nice to be somewhere where they understand.’ Other reports of tears of joy, show just how much the Playday impacted the families that attended. The need for more understanding is clear when you see the relief and joy of families able to enjoy a day out. This has proved so successful that the hope is to offer more events during future school holidays.
Cllr Mandy Garford, who is the proposed chairperson of the NAS branch Dartford, Gravesend, Swanley is committed to making local communities Autism Friendly. Mandy is interested in bringing this to the attention of local and central government, and has, and will be, attending All Party Parliamentary Groups at Westminster. She says, “Autism is invisible and often unheard. I’m really passionate in my wish to increase understanding for those on the spectrum, and their families, so that as communities we can embrace differences.”
With so much enthusiasm and commitment, from so many volunteers, the future for support and understanding for families of those on the autistic spectrum is looking more positive.
For more information please either contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Multi Agency Autism Group or Autism South East on Facebook.