Fears autism support staff will go in cash cuts
A vital service that supports more than 1,000 families affected by autism is under threat because of a funding crisis. For more than a decade family support officers Jo Blamires and Des Walker have been providing professional advice to parents of children, and adults, with autism and advocating their rights to education, health and social care services.
John Franklin, who runs clubs in Kent to support fathers of autistic children and has 20 years of experience working with those affected by the life-long condition, said: “This is a potential situation that if it comes about will be a tsunami of epic proportions for those living with autism in Kent and their families.
“I have been working closely with Kent Autistic Trust (KAT) for a number of years and in particular with their two family support officers and am deeply conscious of what it means for a family to have their support from the diagnosis stage on through life.”
Funding from the Lottery for the KAT family support roles runs out in October this year and the service costs £84,000 annually to provide in its current form.
The Lottery has turned down KAT’s bid for extra cash to keep the service running beyond October.
One in a 100 people are affected by autism, but recent research has found that it could be as many as one in every 64 children.
The support officers currently have 2,483 families on their database as part of their network of support and are regularly in touch with 1,000 people by email on a daily basis.
Concerned parents have been contacting Kent on Sunday all week. They said Mrs Blamires has been providing vital support especially helping to get the support their children are entitled to in schools.
Suzanne Green, who lives in Dover and has a 13-year-old son with autism, said: “Knowing there is someone that you can contact is so helpful for peace of mind.
“If you have not got a professional with good advice, if we lose the KAT service we’ll have no one to turn to at all. Ideally we should have more people like Jo and Des no less.”
The support officers work independently from Kent County Council and Medway Council and represent parents at tribunals and through the process of getting statements of special educational needs (SEN), which legally entitle their children to a certain level of support in school.
Mrs Green said: “Jo helps with the whole ‘statementing’ process, which can be a nightmare for parents.
“With Robert the first 18 months at school was hell. He needed 15 hours one to one support per week and he was supposed to have a separate area to learn how to concentrate and speech therapy.
“He got none of that and there was no regular home contact. He was having temper tantrums every day because he was letting off steam.”
Now, she said that Robert was doing really well school and she hoped he would go on to college.
Mr Walker helps and supports parents of adults with autism and a major part of his work is finding them the right support in health and social care because they often do not fit eligibility criteria because autism is not a learning disability or a mental health problem.
Mrs Green worried about where her family would turn for support if his position was lost because as soon a young people with autism leave school or college they are treated as adults.
Families get phone or in person support through diagnosis, help with behaviour, help accessing benefits, education and further education and help with the transition from school to adult life.
KCC has recently carried out a select committee report on adults, which found there were already gaps in the services provided.
A spokesman for the authority said: “Last month, KCC organised an event for voluntary and community organisations in Kent that looked at the challenges that KAT and others are tackling.
“KCC does buy services from the trust and we are, of course, happy to talk to them as we are always happy to talk with organisations providing services in Kent.”
Medway Council said it had been contacted by KAT and was looking into the situation.
A critical report by the National Audit Office published on Friday found that most local authorities and NHS organisations did not know how many people with autism were living in their area and “lacked understanding” of the condition.
The watchdog said increased investment in specialist services for people with autism could lead to savings in the long term.