Good Causes

Giving autistic kids a break from lockdown

The lockdown turned life upside down for Connor, a non-verbal 10-year-old from Northern Ireland who has autism and complex and high support needs.

Suddenly, for reasons he was completely unable to understand, trips to familiar places like school and the swimming pool were cancelled. His weekly routine – the reassuring sequence of events that gave his life structure – fell away in a moment.

His mother Christina said, “Everything he knew disappeared overnight. Connor has the understanding of a baby – his cognitive level is equivalent to a 12-month old – so he had no way of understanding what was happening, why everything had gone and he had no purpose in his day.

Connor’s challenging behaviour – he can become agitated and aggressive if distressed – was exacerbated by the lockdown, and trips outside the family home in Bangor, County Down, became increasingly difficult.

Public parks remained open, but were increasingly crowded. Christina said, “If another child gets on the same climbing frame as Connor, we’re very anxious. We don’t know what will happen if the other child screams or does something that agitates him.

“When we’re out in the community, we’re on high alert at all times. We’re always looking to see how busy places are and if they become too busy we have to leave because it’s not worth the risk.”

The plight of Connor and many other families with autistic children spurred the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland to take action. Supported by funding from The National Lottery, it found a way to re-open some of the facilities at its Carryduff Autism Centre just outside Belfast.

The Centre – which was opened in 2019 by TV star and autism campaigner Christine McGuinness – has an outdoor play area and several colourful multi-sensory rooms which can be used to either soothe or stimulate autistic children. The funding helped pay for the staff needed to supervise 1-hour visits from families with autistic children and clean and sanitise the facilities after each visit in accordance with coronavirus guidelines.

The ability to use the centre’s sensory rooms and its play area has made an enormous difference to Connor and his family. Christina said, “I can’t describe how helpful it is. Having this space, this purpose-built facility gives us a chance to relax as a family.”

Shirelle Stewart, director of The National Autistic Society Northern Ireland, said the centre simply would not have reopened without support from The National Lottery.

World Autism Awareness Day is on 2nd April 2021.

31st March 2021

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