Wednesday 4th April, 2018

Autism Aware

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April is Autism Awareness Month.  

Heather Rogers has been part of our Aspire team for 6 years: initially as a student worker on a year’s placement; then as a volunteer for 4 years; and for the past 12 months as a Youth Development Worker.

In March, Heather ran the Cambridge Half Marathon, her first ever long distance run, and helped to raise £1,000 funds for Aspire.

Here, Heather shares her personal experience of how she became more aware of the distinctive and unique nature of every young person with an autism spectrum conditions:

Since 2005, Romsey Mill has been supporting young people with autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) and their families through our Aspire programme.

We currently engage with 85 young people on a weekly basis at the 11 autism friendly Aspire youth groups, we run at Romsey Mill Centre (south Cambridge), in Arbury (north Cambridge) and in Cambourne.

Heather Rogers first became aware of the Aspire programme when she had a placement with Romsey Mill whilst studying for a youth ministry qualification in 2012.

Heather said: “In truth, I didn’t know a lot about what it was like to be a young person with autism before my student placement. I had a few pre-conceived ideas, which were not well-informed, so I had expected something very different to what I actually encountered. It could have put me off, but the young people were all so lovely and learning more about what it was like for a young person to have autism has just been amazing.”

“Children and young people with autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) are brave, brilliant, creative, funny and incredible. But it can be very isolating for them, as they find it really hard to ‘fit in’ socially, and any change can have a crippling effect.”

“At our Aspire groups, we create spaces to come and belong. The groups enable the young people to be themselves, without feeling the pressure to conform, and allow them to grow in confidence, make friends over time, and learn new skills in a setting that is safe, secure and designed for them.”

“A young person with autism is more likely to be affected by something like a flickering light, or loud noise and disturbance, so we do everything to make the setting one that is designed to suit them and make them feel comfortable.”

“This might mean opportunities to play with Lego, or crafts, computer games and other activities. Or just chill out. We have conversations with them, that will initially be all about their key interest – which could be anything from music and Dr Who, to Pokemon or movies. I’m not an expert in any of these subjects, but I listen to them, ask questions about their interest and just try and inhabit their world.”

Heather’s colleague Ruth Watt is the Aspire Programme Co-ordinator. Between them they run the 11 groups, supported by up to 5 volunteers in each group; act as advocates in schools and other organisations; and also organise enjoyable days out for each individual group, and residential trips for the Aspire Plus group.    

The 11 Aspire groups (three for girls, seven for boys, and one, called Aspire Plus for older teenagers up to the age of 19) cover several periods of transition for the young people which involve significant change for them: moving to secondary school; preparing for exams in year 11; going to 6th form; getting a first job or going to University). The Aspire team therefore gets to know the young people for up to ten years.

Heather said: “By meeting the same young people each week, over a long period of time, we are able to build a relationship with them, which enables us to better support them and conversations that will help them to transform their situations and feelings.”

“I love that there is no pretence at all for young people with ASCs – they will talk with you for ages about their key interest and they will also tell you exactly how they feel about their day, their life and the things they are struggling with.  Their behaviour reflects exactly what has been going on in their day.”

Many young people with autism experience poor mental health, suffering from anxiety or depression.  

Heather said:  “About half of the young people in Aspire are being treated for depression, particularly as they get older, and we work to support them and their parents through that process. We have one to one meetings with the young people outside of the groups to help with some really big issues that they are facing, and to show them that they are supported and loved.”

“This then means that when they come to the groups they are able to be more relaxed and can get on with doing things that they enjoy. It is so important that these groups allow each of the young people to be who they are, and to know that it is totally OK!”

“I love that over the time we share with them we see them grow in confidence, so that they are able to think about the future in a positive way and have increased confidence in who they are as a person.”

There is one moment that really captures how much Heather loves doing what she does: “Last summer, on a residential trip to the seaside someone took a picture of me and some of the group (see below). They are all expressing themselves confidently and individually within a group photo – something that would not have been possible years before.  One of the group is even sprinkling sand over of the rest of us. The photo captures the moment and the sense of joy.  When we all looked at the photo, one of the group said:  “I love this – it shows who we really are!”  


If you would be interested in volunteering at one of the Aspire groups, please let us know, email: