How Sycamore Trust helps people with autism in Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge and Havering
PUBLISHED: 07:00 01 September 2020 | UPDATED: 08:31 02 September 2020
The National Autistic Society estimates there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK, with one in every 100 people on the spectrum.
A number of those live in Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge and Havering, where they have the invaluable asset of the Sycamore Trust on their doorstep.
The autism charity — formed in 1996 and rebranded in 2014 — has continued to offer its full complement of programmes during the pandemic, with those involved pleasantly surprised by how well the trust has adapted.
Yet as with many charities, concerns abound over the long-term impact of coronavirus, which has led to months of stifled fundraising opportunities.
Given the hardship of recent months brought on by the virus, charity spokesman Steve Dixon is wary that “compassion fatigue” may set in, at a time when the trust’s work is more vital than ever.
In a lengthy interview, Steve discussed the charity’s projects, its successes, and its imprint on the three east London boroughs in which it operates.
According to him, one of the trust’s biggest achievements is its most recent.
“I have been amazed by how we adapted to virtual life following lockdown. It was difficult, but we were driven by the desire to continue running as many of our programmes as possible.”
A year ago it would have seemed inconceivable to run face-to-face programmes digitally; the need had never arisen.
But with coronavirus wreaking havoc since mid-March, the trust had to adapt in order to continue providing for service users whose needs were unchanged by the pandemic.
It’s impossible for Steve to predict the impact had all services ceased, but common sense dictates that it would have negatively affected the autistic children and young people involved.
Fearful of service users regressing, Steve and his colleagues set about digitalising as many programmes as possible, resulting in the charity experiencing one of its busiest ever periods.
Though proud of how staff banded together, Steve faces fresh worry over what is to come for people with this “silent” condition: “The nature of how this virus shut everything down presents unique problems for our service users. Some, though not all, have loved the lockdown. We are worried about how they will reintegrate as things continue to open back up.”
He explains that this “transitioning period” between lockdown and the resumption of normality is likely to be even tougher for the people his charity helps.
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“I fear there could be something of a looming crisis, particularly with children going back to school. Despite the fact that we have been working with our service users throughout the pandemic, such big changes will have an impact. This next part of the year could be extremely busy for us.”
Neither Steve nor any of his seven full-time colleagues are afraid of being busy, but they are worried about being able to continue providing the current level of service with ever-dwindling resources.
“There are 1,200 charities in this country, and they’re all marvellous. We have to constantly evolve to be seen. It’s tricky because what we are doing is not specifically related to the virus.”
Yet that doesn’t make its work any less crucial.
Amongst the charity’s most successful projects is the Speak with a Picture (SWAP) programme, which helps children with autism learn to better communicate their wants and needs.
It’s been rnning since 2018 and Steve hopes to have its funding renewed come 2021 when the current financial backing expires.
“By the time we get to the end of the programme we will have helped around 150 families; more, if you include the extra places we can allocate thanks to additional funding provided by Barking and Dagenham Council.”
The merit of the programme — run by Cheryl Kearney and Ann-Marie Lyons-Mummery — lies in its over-subscription.
“Our biggest problem is that it has been very difficult to accommodate everyone who expresses an interest.”
Another successful project is the Parenting Pathways programme, which helps girls with learning difficulties who get pregnant: “This programme is vital, and really saves local authorities a lot of money.”
At the heart of all of the charity’s good work is its Autism Hub, which operates four days a week out of Romford’s Liberty Centre.
Steve explains the most common scenario encountered at the drop-in centre: “People will often come in and say ‘I’ve just got a diagnosis — I don’t know what to do’. We can signpost people to the relevant services that are available to them, which is vital.”
The importance of the charity’s work has never been in doubt, but the ability to fund it is.
“In this current climate it’s hard to reach people by shaking buckets and running marathons.”
For more information, visit sycamoretrust.org.uk.
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