Anthony* is 17 and in his first year of 6th form. He is autistic and has struggled with poor mental health for many years, having regularly self-harmed over the last few years and unfortunately attempting suicide on one occasion. He still struggles with suicidal ideation. He suffers with insomnia but also has a form of narcolepsy which particularly affects him when he is stressed and anxious. When his family got in touch with us his mum expressed that Anthony wanted to make friends and increase in his skills for independence.

He started attending our Aspire Plus youth club for young adults age 17-19. He was incredibly anxious before his first session but Aspire staff worked with Anthony and his mum to build up in small steps towards attending. The plan for his first session was to attend for just a short time. When he arrived it turned out he knew a handful of other attendees from school and was relieved to be able to connect with others quickly. He joined a game of "Monopoly Deal" - a current favourite across all Aspire groups! Staff kept in touch with his mum during the session and informed her how well he seemed to be settling. She replied,

"Wow, we can never get him to join in with games. This has made my week!"

After a young person's first session, Aspire staff check in with the young person and family to find out how they found it and if there is anything else we can do to help them settle and continue to attend. Anthony's mum told us,

"He really enjoyed it and he's gone straight to sleep when he got in, despite his usual insomnia, so double bonus! Thank you so much for helping him feel at ease."

Anthony has continued to struggle with poor mental health since he joined our Aspire Plus youth club. His 6th form are supportive and he has been accessing support from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH) team, but concerns remain as his mood and motivation can drop leaving him feeling low. To help Anthony manage some of his lower times, he has started to meet one of Aspire's youth development workers, for one-to-one sessions in addition to attending Aspire Plus. During these sessions Anthony and the youth worker use the Nintendo Switch to play a game while chatting through how Anthony is feeling. Using the games console in this way means face to face interaction and eye contact - which can cause huge additional stress for autistic people - are removed from the equation. Conversation can flow freely if Anthony wants to talk. At other times he might prefer just to play a game and not speak but providing a safe space for this to happen without the pressure of having to talk is helping Anthony to manage his emotions.

Anthony's mum took the time to let us know the impact the youth club sessions and one-to-ones have been having with him:

"Aspire is a safe and inclusive environment that supports positive social experiences in otherwise isolated and vulnerable individuals. It's the only peer to peer socialising that Anthony engages in and is helping to build his confidence in social situations, develop friendships, boost his self-esteem and have fun. He came back beaming with confidence after his last one to one with Thomas. He had been really struggling beforehand but came out laughing and like a weight was lifted from his shoulders. We really are very grateful that Anthony has this provision."

Anthony's story continues, and demonstrates the importance of long-term, relational autism-specific youth work that comes alongside young people who due to their challenges, struggle to manage life every day.

*This is not their real name