Learning life skills

CHILDREN with a disorder from the autistic spectrum are often shunned because of their lack of social skills, but a Suffolk group is today taking the time to equip youngsters with vital life skills.

CHILDREN with a disorder from the autistic spectrum are often shunned because of their lack of social skills, but a Suffolk group is today taking the time to equip youngsters with vital life skills.

Health reporter HAZEL BYFORD spoke to a parent who's seen her son's life turned around.

SUE Stephenson once described her son with Asperger's syndrome as 'a cactus in a bed of roses.'

His prickly character meant he found it hard to fit in with his peers, all blossoming as they grew older.

But things have changed. Thanks to a year of nurturing at a social group for children with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) the ten-year-old is now demonstrating social skills Sue never believed possible.

Elliott belongs to the Suffolk Children with Autism Play Scheme (SCAMPS) and Sue is a founding member. This month the group is celebrating its first anniversary and no parent is quicker to point out the success of the last 12 months than Sue.

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She said: “Most children with an ASD are sent to mainstream schools but many don't fit in socially.

“It's a very difficult situation and families can easily feel isolated.

“SCAMPS is a place where families in similar circumstances can share experiences and advice and it's an easier environment for children to adapt socially.

“Ask any parents and they will all say their child has shown marked improvement

“We set out to develop their social skills and broaden social horizons and we think we've achieved that.

“Elliot has come on leaps and bounds. One parent said his child keeps asking if they can come to SCAMPS every day, that's how much it means to them.”

The group meets fortnightly at St John's Church hall, Woodbridge. Children are aged from five to 15 and have a range of ASD conditions, from Asperger Syndrome to what is recognised as full autism.

It was launched by a group of parents who have children with an ASD who had been meeting regularly for several months at a theatre group, including Sue.

After discussing at length the problems their children had with social skills, particularly at school, SCAMPS was born. All parents become committee members so all families have a say in the group's running and some parents have undergone training.

Sue said the group also gives parents and carers confidence with dealing with the children.

Elliot was diagnosed when he was six. Her two older sons, now 13 and 15, had good social skills, a network of friends and had always performed well academically at school.

Elliot was fine within family surroundings but his difficulties started at playgroup and escalated at school.

He was excluded several times for bad behaviour, often deliberately misbehaving so he was sent home, where he felt safe.

The youngster moved primary schools to Kyson Primary School and is now performing a lot better. He is due to start Farlingaye High School next year.

Sue said: “As a parent it's easy to feel blamed. Support here is just as much for the parents as it is the child and it has definitely made being a parent easier.

“Also, as a parent there's no greater pleasure than seeing the children having fun each week.

“Children with an ASD don't tend to use facial expressions so it's wonderful to see them smiling. It's as if their personality comes out above the ASD.

“The way I see it, it's like providing the children with a tool box and every week we put another tool in the box.

“They can then bring the tools out when they aren't at SCAMPS to cope with different situations.

“When they came to us the toolbox was empty.”

The SCAMPS sessions start with a talk and listen time, where the only person allowed to talk is the person holding SCAMP the mascot teddy bear.

ASD children will often talk about one subject for a long time and this teaches them talking and listening skills. The sessions also include toy time and a visit from a guest. In the past, guests have included a chef, musicians, artists and circus skill and insect experts.

Activities where there are a lot of noise, conversation, instructions to follow and colour, like cooking or art lessons, are difficult for ASD children, but at SCAMPS they are done in a controlled environment.

The group celebrated its first anniversary on Saturday with a movie stars themed meeting.

It wants to grow in the future, as with around 20 families on its books, it knows it is only reaching the tip of the iceberg.

After an initial start-up grant, the group is now relying on fees but is keen to keep growing and wants to attract families from across Suffolk. It hopes to be able to split into age groups when membership increases, providing different activities for different age children.

N To find out more about SCAMPS e-mail Sue at SSusansteph@aol.com

N (ASD) is a term which includes the subgroups within the spectrum of autism.

N All those with an ASD share impairments in their ability to understand and use non-verbal and verbal communication, understand social behaviour and think and behave flexibly - which may be shown in restricted, obsessive or repetitive activities.

N Some children with an ASD have a different perception of sounds, sights, smell, touch and taste.

N They may also have unusual sleep and behaviour patterns and behavioural problems.

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