Charity Little Heroes aims to help children with autism realise their full potential. Christina Geggus talks to founder Kim Drake about the project and looks at how a government consultation on special needs education could help support families further.
The government has recently launched the long-awaited consultation of a SEND review that was commissioned in 2019, but many parents feel the support that will be introduced by the government comes too late.
The Green Paper proposes that £10m will be spent to train more than 200 educational psychologists, improvements will be made to up 40 special and alternative provision free schools, and a national framework will be given to councils to make it clear what level of support is expected for children with the greatest additional needs in their area.
One mum who was affected by this early lack of support is Kim Drake, 44. When finding out her son had been diagnosed with autism, she found herself staring into a black hole.
“I felt so overwhelmed as I really didn’t know much about autism.”
With many places in UK lacking special needs facilities, Kim was lucky to find Success on the Spectrum (SOS) for autism soon after Alfie’s diagnosis.
“I thought it was great to be around people that understood my son, but the problem was most of the parents were talking about secondary schools and puberty and I was just trying to get Alfie to stay in nursery sessions for longer than an hour at that point,” she says.
With The British Medical Association estimating one in hundred children in UK are on the autistic spectrum, it will come as no surprise that the demand for help is increasing.
“I became so used to the word no, that isn’t possible or available for your child, that as a family we became very socially isolated,” Kim says. “It wasn’t until Alfie went to school that I got asked to help out with a monthly coffee morning at Summerfield Children’s Centre for families with children with autism and from there, I started hearing about families’ access to facilities as well as bad experiences.”
Kim decided in 2012 to create Little Heroes, a charity that unlocks autistic children’s potential in a safe setting (see below) and now support many families in Southend-on-Sea and surrounding areas from as soon as they discover their child has autism. “I wanted to create a place where children with ASD would be accepted, safe and no parents would have to keep saying sorry.”
The charity offers weekly bookable sessions including girls’ club and boys’ club as well (see below) as mixed sessions, such as Little Heroes youth club and more. They also have created a dads’ club and walks and talks to promote parents and carers to speak to them.
“Our main aim is to give children and families the chance to able to achieve things, even if they are the smallest things, as these can be life changing. I remember one time I had a mum send me a video of her child singing when they woke up in the morning after attending our music sessions. That was one moment that really made me smile, but I have these most days.”
Every child with autism will have different abilities and difficulties. Therefore, it is essential that activity coordinator, Natalie Hague, 31, makes sure there is a variety of activities that suits every child that walks through their doors. “It is very much trial and error and I adapt my sessions each week to make sure they all run smoothly.”
One adaptation includes having to make sure everything is edible. “The best thing I’ve made so far is edible sand out of a box of cereal. These things are so important to do in my role, as they help to build trust with the parents.”
During the pandemic, the charity went above and beyond.
“During lockdown, we made activity kits for the kids to do each week on zoom with us, which we delivered to families’ doorsteps. We also did Friday Zoom meetings for parents, and we even got some local school teachers on there to help with any parents having home schooling issues.”
It was really rewarding for Kim and her team to make the bags and deliver them to everyone, she adds. “We would speak to families on their doorsteps and give them any support they needed. Sometimes we would be there for an hour.”
Additionally, the charity continues to raise awareness. During Autism Awareness week this year, they created myth buster flyers, which they put up around the local areas to encourage people to talk about autism.
Freya Tiana, 18, a supporter worker from Friends and Places Together, another local charity, hopes the Green Paper helps more families with children with autism.
“So many parents struggle with how to cope with their child’s behaviours and feel guilty that they can’t control them. No parents should feel like this, I hope more parents have more places where they can go to in the future.”
Sarah Phillips, 36, mother of two sons Klay, 2 who has autism and Kobi, 7 who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) traits, says she has personally been affected by people’s ignorance and lack of special needs facilities. “I used to go to pre-school groups and felt like other parents did not want my sons to be included, as they did not understand their conditions. Little Heroes is the only place I have never felt judged.”
Autism is not seen as normal in society, she thinks. “It is not normalised to even be seen in a soap opera. They need to show that autistic people are ordinary people and can do things that everyone else can do too.”
As Little Heroes continues to grow, it is committed to gaining National Lottery funding to hire more staff, put on more activities and raise awareness.
Kim and all the staff at Little Heroes hope to continue their work to make Southend-on-Sea area aware of their facilities. “We want to be financially secure, everything is funded by fundraising, nothing from local authorities,” she says.
Little Heroes is hopeful that the consultation will help them to expand their services for more children and families in the future.