What we can learn from Australia about support services for young autistic people
Ambitious about Autism’s Participation Manager, Emily, is currently on a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship looking at post-diagnostic support services for autistic young people. She is travelling through Australia and New Zealand in search of innovate practice and ideas that can be replicated in England..
In my first three weeks and my time spent in Australia I met with nine different organisations, one university, two schools and I even met with a family. Safe to say I’ve gained huge insight into the Australian system but unpacking all my thoughts and learning will definitely take some time!
Here are my key takeaways so far:
Thriving vs surviving
This is a concept that I use regularly in my work life and with my team and is very apt when looking at services. Do services or programmes help the young person survive or are they helping them thrive? At Ambitious about Autism, we talk about making the ordinary possible for children and young people and this should mean living a life that they choose and which is meaningful and full – not just covering the bare minimum.
Over the past few years Australia has rolled out a funding initiative called NDIS, which stands for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
If you qualify for NDIS you can receive money to buy support services, access groups, employment, therapies and training schemes. One young man I met had his NDIS funding cover supported employment, travel training, physio sessions and a PA to help him access community and social or activity groups every day of the week. This level of consistent holistic support allows people to thrive and become more independent. And this funding doesn’t stop until you’re 65.
Support doesn’t need to be clinical
When I talk about post-diagnostic support, it sounds medical and sterile. But it doesn’t need to be pathologized. Obviously in some cases it can be helpful to talk to a professional, but so far all the services I’ve seen that work are led by other autistic people or by allies and are much more relaxed and informal. The programmes I’ve visited have been based around a variety of areas, never assuming that one-size-fits-all. I’ve been to groups focused on interests, groups where you learn new skills such as cooking, budgeting and tech, groups where you’re there to have fun and socialise, school groups and 1:1 peer mentoring. But in all cases the subsequent outcomes are empowerment and solidarity in their autistic identities.
Peer networks and role models are priceless
Never underestimate the power of peers and role models. No support programme can guarantee that you’ll make friends, but being surrounded by a network of autistic peers can be empowering all the same. These networks can be in your community, online or in your educational setting. I’ve been lucky enough to attend different groups over the past three weeks and a real highlight was a group of autistic young people working together and supporting one another in a mainstream senior school through a 10-week programme about understanding themselves. The programme was led by an autistic adult who had been open about his diagnosis and struggles through school. These programmes help you learn about yourself by meeting others like you. Some young people I’ve met have said that their support groups are like coming home and finally feeling safe. They promote positive identities and help young people feel confident in who they are and allow them to share their struggles with those who truly understand.
The past three weeks have been intense but I feel incredibly lucky that so many organisations have been willing to open their doors and let me visit. I also want to thank all the participants of these programmes for letting me take part and meet them all. Seeing these programmes in action has taught me so much and I hope we can replicate some of this great work with the support of our Youth Patrons.
Big thanks to: Youth Disability Advocacy Service, Aspergers Victoria, Yellow Ladybugs, Amaze, Aspect, Liz Pellicano and the AutismMQ team at Macquarie University, the Sexton family, Jigsaw Business Solutions, Autism Queensland, Autism Queensland Brighton School, Autism CRC, I-CAN Network and Pine Rivers State High School.
I’m now in New Zealand and have an equally busy schedule visiting support groups, programmes, mentoring and whole-family outreach services. I’ll report back in three weeks!