Autism West Midlands are the leading charity in the West Midlands for people with autism. We use our expertise to enrich the lives of people with autism and those who love and care for them. Our passionate, expert staff and volunteers work across all age groups and abilities, providing direct support to people with autism. We support people with autism to live as independently as possible, in residential care, in their own or the family home or during everyday life.
The Walsall befriending service, ran by Autism West Midlands and commissioned by Walsall Council, was set up in response to a need raised by parents of adults with autism in Walsall. Our aims were to create opportunities for friendships, fun and to improve wellbeing and happiness. We aimed to challenge the myths around autism, namely that people with autism do not want friends.
We have a strong base of volunteers who are interviewed, trained and screened prior to volunteering. The matching process from a volunteer to an individual with autism is detailed, taking into account individual preferences, interests and availability. It is important to ensure that the match is suitable to enable the individual to feel more at ease with spending time with the volunteer. In addition to individual 2:1 sessions, we provide group sessions where individuals can meet other people with autism. Some individuals have moved on from meeting with their volunteers to just attending groups. The group sessions create opportunities for friendships. We are also in the process of setting up a peer mentor led group for those who are moving forward from the main group. We offer a range of support- there are those individuals who like to meet with their volunteers at the same time, same date and activity each month, those who want help with travelling, and then there are those who just want to try scuba diving because my mother will not come with me! We try to empower all individuals to do activities that they want to do.
One man approached us asking to volunteer within the befriending service. Upon meeting him, it was clear that he was more in need of support himself at the time and we discussed the possibility of him having autism. He told me that he had no friends and felt helpless. He had approached other organisations for support but as he did not have a confirmed diagnosis of autism, they could not help him. He was also struggling to get across to his GP that he wanted to be assessed with autism, and this was making him very anxious. He would call us every day asking for help. After a battle with various GP’s for around a year, we supported him in his assessment to secure a diagnosis of autism. He has accessed all of our group sessions and contacts us only to confirm that he is going to attend a group. He told me that he as made a friend for life in one of the other individuals who accesses the groups and spent last Christmas with his friend, when the three previous years he had spent them alone.
Autism West Midlands were finalists in the ‘Great Autism Practice’ category at the National Learning Disability and Autism awards and were nominated by Ian Staples, Lead Commissioner in Walsall Council for complex needs and mental health within adult social care. The service was nominated for its innovation, prevention outcomes for individuals and their carers, and to challenge myths in relation to social interaction and friendship for adults on the autistic spectrum.