This month, we focus on the Gravity Autism Support group based in the Liam Rodgers Centre in Swords. I had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation with Lynne Walsh and Emma Weldon who are part of the Gravity Autism Support group in Swords, which they founded along with a like-minded group of parents in 2017 to promote social inclusion for autistic children through sports, fitness, and numerous social activities in the Fingal area.
These families came together to establish the group given there was little to zero information on how to support their autistic children. The group is run by families for families to promote acceptance of autistic children in society who may not have reached expected developmental milestones and who have traditionally missed out on extra-curricular activities. “When parents get an ASD diagnosis – either early or late – most of them are lost. They start asking themselves the question, where do I go? Where do I start? And so, our goal is to provide them with the information and support they need and promote activities to include them. And over time, their children benefit hugely from participating in the clubs and the families build lasting friendships”. This close-knit, family-led approach means the group supports families with more than one autistic child or their siblings who are not autistic to ensure they feel enabled to support their family member with autism and talk to others who are going through the same experience which can be very difficult, especially during teenage years. Some of the service users may be comorbid meaning they have more than one disability – autism and dyspraxia together, among others, for example. The group is now working closely with SNAs in schools and have received information from As I Am and other national autism advocacy groups on how to structure their service to maximise its potential together with the support of Fingal County Council.
It is difficult to put an exact number on how many children in Ireland have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) owing to backlogs in formally diagnosing ASD however, diagnosis rates are estimated to be 50/50 male/female. The ratio is 80/20 male/female who use Gravity’s service, suggesting we still have plenty room for improvement in autism diagnosis rates, especially for young women and girls who may mask their autism through mirroring other behaviour and slip through the cracks when it comes to formal diagnosis.
Gravity runs multiple activities to promote camaraderie in the club, and it is evident just how much COVID has impacted the group, especially during the summer when schools were closed. Autistic children need structure and expectations management, and the lack of certainty has had a huge impact on families. The group are opening up activities again from 8 November, and there are multiple clubs on offer, from the Junior Social Club and Football and Fitness that cater for children under 10, the Social and Football Clubs for children over 10, and partner with Crosscare Youth in Swords to run the Fun Fitness Club for families on Saturday mornings, as well as the Gaming and Youth Clubs where activities such as pool, Xbox, cooking, arts and crafts are promoted given these activities help with hand-eye coordination, developing concentration, fine skills, motor skills, and gets them moving through messy play, and learning how to play well and work together. The group are hoping to receive funding for a mobile library, and would love to offer swimming; however, it is proving difficult and expensive to find an instructor with the right background and training to support.
It’s clear just how much these families care about the group through their commitment, and through their clear mission to promote awareness, acceptance, and help these children build social confidence through activities that focus on their strengths. For older children, they partner with NotSoDifferent to begin taking steps towards employment. To promote acceptance of siblings supporting autistic family members, a Sibling Appreciation Day takes place annually. Day trips to places like Tayto Park, and the Big Taxi Project to Powerscourt are outings where families have had a chance to socialise with other families with similar experiences. To ensure the children can experience Hallowe’en and Santa similar to other children, the group provide Hallowe’en treats, and hold a Christmas Party where Santa visits and brings gifts, which is taking place on 4 December this year.
You can learn more about Gravity Autism Support by attending their information evening open to existing and new members on 26 October at 8pm in the Liam Rodgers Centre, through their website https://www.gravityautismsupport.ie/ , or by contacting the Group at email@example.com