Catriona McRoberts is voluntary CEO for REACH South Lanarkshire Autism. The charity was established in March 2012 to bridge the gap of inequalities in services and support for children and young people post diagnosed or awaiting referral for diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Catriona was nominated as an Autism Champion by one of the many service users of REACH Autism.
I joined as a Trustee when the charity was first formed , suddenly finding myself lost within the world of caring for a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, with nowhere to go to help develop his needs, to play like other boys his age and to meet parents in the same position. Having to seek support and respite outwith my own local authority was mentally and physically draining and I wanted to make a difference to children like K and families like my own. Ultimately making sure my son had the same opportunities as his brother and sister has been the driving force which keeps me focused, my passion is to ensure his community is accepting and adapted to suit his needs and that he can grow up a confident, happy and secure young man. This is my wish for all children and young people who have an autism spectrum disorder.
Early intervention is key and with the right support and guidance, we hope to eradicate the current vision that those within an ASD don’t make friends and just like play their compute. I believe EVERY child no matter what their ability should be first of all given the opportunity and choice, this was not available across the board. Local authority places were limited, areas deprived, parents with very little knowledge or understanding of their child’s needs were just left to get on with it. There was a huge gap, times have changed and we have identified these areas and are slowly but surely building a positive community to raise your child with an ASD.
Autism is so unique and complex that each family is presented with their unique challenges to create some balance and harmony within their lives. Many mothers cannot return to work, fathers then bear the burden of financial responsibility, siblings are needing support themselves….we support the whole family. Mothers have mentioned “we are a life line of support”, and that their child “is happy and confident” we have had some success stories of young people developing their understanding and social skills to be able to join mainstream activities, while dipping back in and out of our supported activities when needed, the mother of one young man was in tears at the positive change she witnessed. Another young person, a girl aged 11 had a fear of horses, she is now an accomplished rider, helps out at the stables and is happy within herself, prior to this she was misunderstood, had no friends and was constantly bullied. To see her smile and give a big cuddle is just amazing, I sometimes pinch myself at the difference we have made.
Many parents are so delighted with the work of the charity that they have offered their services voluntary also and this is making a huge difference to their self esteem, knowing they are also contributing to making a difference to not only their child but to many others also.
With no real practical support and ultimately discovering that there was no activities readily available for children/young people with an ASD, no offer of choice and no parent support groups with a difference, I was determined to help make a positive change.
My predecessor resigned due to family reasons and I was elected and took hold of the reigns in June 2013.
I firstly decided to pilot activities throughout the summer, I am very passionate about the health and social welfare of children, therefore being able to offer our ASD community the opportunity to exercise through play, while developing their social and emotional skills, building their confidence, improving self esteem, and strengthening their fine and gross motor skills, the positive transformation in the lives of the children and their families was clearly evident.
I was very conscious through my own experience raising a child with an ASD about parents feeling isolated as many ASD children attend nursery and schools outwith their regular community, parents don’t get the opportunity to chat at the school gates, to build friendships as many of our children are privately transported. However we have now helped these families form close supportive relationships with one another as they meet regularly at activities.
The families were delighted with this whole fresh approach to support, numbers were great and families were travelling across Lanarkshire to attend activities. We offered discounted and exclusive to our families a choice of horse riding, soft play, arts & crafts, drama, dance and sports therapy, an activity to access Monday to Friday. Some activities were split into two sessions to accommodate age groups or to meet high demand.
Negotiating with service providers throughout the summer last year and making ends meet financially, spreading the word about who we were, what we were trying to do etc and attending every activity to welcome families, ensure they were looked after, all needs were being met and of course introducing families to one another… REACH South Lanarkshire Autism was finally on the move and we celebrated by having a family BBQ where over 50 families attended!
We are completely voluntary and parent led organisation. We support approximately 160 children/young people with an ASD ages range from 3-21yrs, their siblings and family as a whole. We have our Board of Trustees, Committee, 28 Parent Volunteers, 6 Volunteers, Voluntary Health & Safety Advisor, Child Protection Officer, Speech & Language Therapist and Play Therapist.
Our range of activities are now as follows: horse riding, arts & crafts, football, gymnastics, tae kwon do, soft play, musical therapy, sports therapy, dance, tennis and swimming. We operate in 6 locations throughout Lanarkshire including Rural Lanarkshire which is by far the most difficult area to reach. Our next activity to launch by the beginning of May is aimed at supporting our girls/females, a local beauty salon has agreed to let our girls meets weekly to discuss health, hygiene, beauty etc and trial some make up, nails etc while getting some great advice from salon therapists, this will also double up as social event for our teens/young adults.
The majority of our funding is raised either at our own fundraising events, or through donations, and sponsorship. We have a very active community and many of the siblings have developed their own social enterprise and have donated a great amount of money.
Last year we raised enough money to take around 35 families to the ASD friendly performance of the Lion King at the Edinburgh Playhouse, our families have access to discounted ASD friendly hair salon, discounted repair to iphone/ipads etc (our children regularly damage these and parents were often out of pocket), discounted beauty therapies and the opportunity to access courses and training as and when required.
We have a great association with local schools, NHS Lanarkshire, CAMHS, East Kilbride Community Trust, Happy n Healthy Community Trust, VASLAN, SCVO, Mindroom, Princess Royal Trust for Carers, Scottish Autism and the National Autistic Society. We are also members of Social Enterprise Scotland and Alliance Scotland.
I’m sure you will agree and see that it is evident that there is a definite need within the community for the services REACH can offer and consider my position to be a privilege and have no doubt that the success is down to the sheer determination and hard work given by all involved to encourage society to fit into Autism and not Autism to fit into society….The progress many children/young adults have achieved has been fantastic!
We are registered as a direct service within the National Autistic Society website and have just started the process to apply for Autism Accreditation and look forward to working towards achieving this as one of our next goals.
Finally, we have been chosen as a charity to be given free office let in the Town Centre in East Kilbride. A shop front location, whereby we can offer help, support, drop in café and much needed desk and office storage facilities, meeting area etc. We are very excited about this and hope to officially open at the beginning of May. This is only a temporary let until Christmas I believe, however it costs us nothing and we will be able to continue our work mobile/working from home again if necessary.
Our goal is that we create enough awareness and successful grant applications that we will be in a position to have our own premises/centre to run the majority of our services from.