When the lockdown was announced, we had to close our day centre in Belfast. This was incredibly hard for the autistic people we support who tend to find change, particularly sudden change, really difficult. And it was hard for our staff too. They quickly rallied and adapted the support we offer, by offering calls and remote support. And later we offered to take people out for a couple of drives a week (with PPE of course) to provide some respite for families. Throughout, we’ve been planning our phased return to our centre.
Our day service
We began supporting adults at our Autism Centre in September 2019. In this new purpose-built centre, we run a day service for up to ten autistic people with high support needs, offering a safe and welcoming place to socialise, learn and become more independent. It has bespoke multi-sensory rooms and immersive environments, a fitted kitchen to practice life skills, a gym, garden and outdoor exercise equipment. Within the centre, we develop programmes for each person, with access to onsite behaviour support, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.
By March, we felt we were well established and had become an important part of people’s lives. So we were extremely disappointed to have to close the service. But the frustration we felt I think made us even more determined to make sure we were able to provide some sort of replacement support during the first stage of the lockdown and to open up again as soon as possible.
Maintaining support and a phased return
Throughout lockdown we wanted to support autistic adults and their families as much as possible. In June, we started our phased return to the service. At first, we were supporting only two adults in the building at any one time (each with 2 to 1 support and a team leader). This gradually increased as government guidance and the situation allowed. We were quite lucky that a lot of our activities could take place in the outdoor space, so we weren’t too restricted.
I think the fact that we support a relatively small number of people with high support needs worked in our favour too, as it meant that we could open up more quickly than centres which support more people.
But there were still huge challenges, particularly adjusting to the many things we had to do differently to operate safely. Things like introducing a new cleaning regime, taking temperatures, making sure all staff are wearing the right PPE and ensuring that the transition back to the centre was as smooth as possible for the people we support. Transition went well, in large part because we had been able to keep some contact throughout lockdown, through the use of visual aids and by giving lots of notice about any changes.
By the end of July we were already supporting people four days a week and, I’m delighted to say, we’ve been back to full-time support since the end of August.
It’s been a challenging but ultimately rewarding few months, for me personally and the team. I feel really lucky to be surrounded by so many passionate and committed people.
Looking back, the most important part of our work is definitely providing continuity. This was important to manage the change when the service closed and meant that there was not a sudden drop off in support, which was important both for the individuals we work with and for their families who were likely to be facing more pressures and may perhaps have been working full time, alongside their caring responsibilities. And it’s also been important long-term, in that it’s allowed us to manage change and, alongside families, support people back into the centre relatively smoothly.
Find out more about autism and the National Autistic Society: autism.org.uk