Author Archives: Elaine Collins

Disabled Facilities Grants

The school of law team at the University of Leeds

The school of law team at the University of Leeds

Our student researchers at the School of Law, University of Leeds, have published a report on Disabled Facilities Grants and home adaptations.

Disabled children and their families are legally entitled to a grant to pay for necessary adaptations to their home to improve accessibility and independent enjoyment of their surroundings. These are known as Disabled Facilities Grants (DFGs) and are usually for sums up to £30,000. The main aim of our DFG Project is to assess the cost effectiveness of DFGs and the wider impact adaptations have on the disabled child and their families.

The latest report from the team considers the benefits of investing in home adaptations for disabled children, including cost savings and improvements in well-being.

You can read the full report here.

How behaviour problems can affect family life

Jane Raca, whose son James has learning disabilities, autism and challenging behaviour shares her story and explains how you can get involved in research that will help other families.

“When James was little he used to pinch me if he was cross. He couldn’t walk or talk, so his means of communication were limited. The pinching didn’t hurt too much and he developed a graduated system of pinches which even made me rather proud! If he wanted my attention and I was preoccupied, he would pinch lightly. If he was getting agitated and wanted to leave a noisy place, the pressure would increase until I got the message.

As he grew older and stronger, the squeezing inevitably inflicted more damage. I once got him stuck in a doorway in his electric wheelchair and ended up with a black bruise the size of a saucer under my arm. Despite this, I was surprised when one of his social workers confessed to me that she was afraid of him. It had not occurred to me to be frightened. He was my son and I loved him; I knew he wasn’t being malicious. If you can’t walk or talk and you get overwhelmed by crowds, or the tiniest change in routine, there are only so many ways you can say so.

The social worker’s comments made me think though and I realised that although I wasn’t scared, I was on a constant state of high alert, trying to avoid an outburst. I was also worried about James’s brother and sister and felt I had to protect them from him. It wasn’t much fun for them getting into the car with someone who might attack them, or going to the cinema with someone who might bite them if he got anxious. They started refusing to go anywhere with James and becoming quiet and withdrawn.

I wasn’t getting much sleep and the psychological strain of managing James’s moods on a minute by minute basis contributed to my emotional exhaustion. Eventually I had a nervous breakdown. As I was the main carer of James and his two siblings, this had a profound impact on the family. My husband was alarmed at the fact that I seemed to need to sleep for 20 hours out of every 24, and he had to hold the fort at home as well as work. Our marriage was under severe strain. My mother travelled miles to support us every weekend.

What I didn’t know at that time was that what was happening to my family was not unusual. There is now a much greater awareness of the potential challenges of having an autistic child. However, the resources available to help are still woefully inadequate. Now there is an opportunity to improve that. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence ‘NICE’ has identified that behaviour that challenges is common in children with a learning disability and can have a considerable impact on them and their family members or carers.

For example it is a common reason for residential placements with associated high costs. NICE has recommended that research be carried out into preventing behaviour that challenges from developing in young children with a learning disability. This is important because NICE is an independent body set up to advise the NHS among others. Its role includes providing strong, research based evidence which has the power to persuade governments to formulate or change policy.

Now, The Cerebra Family Research Group based at CEDAR, a research centre headed by Professor Richard Hastings at The University of Warwick, is calling for 1000 families of children with a learning disability to volunteer to take part in a study over time. The study will look at the well-being of family members where a child has a learning disability, not just mothers, but fathers and siblings as well. The study will further the understanding of what it is like to raise a child with a learning disability in the UK and may ultimately lead to greater resources being available for families like ours.

Professor Hastings, who is also Chair of Family Research for the charity Cerebra, says that many studies show that mothers of children with learning disabilities and autism experience more stress from their children’s behaviour problems compared to other children. He says that fathers and siblings also report more psychological problems when a child with learning disabilities or autism has significant behaviour problems. This doesn’t surprise me at all.

If your child is between 4 and 15 years, 11 months old and has learning disabilities (including children with autism or any one of a number of genetic syndromes as well) please consider taking part. It could make a real difference.

To find out more about the study and to complete the online survey please visit the website. If you have any questions please contact the research team by email: familyresearch@warwick.ac.uk or telephone: 02476 524 139.”

©Jane Raca 2016, writing as a parent contributor for the Family Research Ambassadors Project run by the Centre for Education, Development and Research (CEDAR), at the University of Warwick and Cerebra.

Social Care Guides – England and Wales

social care guidesOne of the results of devolution is that in a number of areas of the law England and Wales are developing different approaches – these are sometimes very different.

The law dealing with social care is no exception and both England and Wales have seen changes in this area in the recent past. The changes in Wales in particular are significant and social services teams are still getting to grips with implementing them.

We have therefore developed two guides on social care, one for England and one for Wales which explain the different systems.

We would particularly recommend them to anyone moving between the two countries.

SEN Reforms in England and Wales

sen reformsIn England, the special educational needs (SEN) reforms introduced in September 2014 continue to be rolled out.

Although all SEN statements should be converted into Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans by April 2018 recent government figures show that 45% of the statements are still in place with only 19 out of the 152 English local authorities currently on track to meet the deadline.

Clearly, many families are still waiting for statements to be converted to an EHC plan and they can get more information about the process from our guide on Education in England: Statements of Special Educational Needs: A Guide for Parents.

However, those families undergoing assessment for an EHC plan, and those who already have one, will find the information they need in the recently revised guide Education Health and Care (EHC) Plans. (Education in England: A Guide for Parents).

Meanwhile in Wales, the Welsh Government’s proposed SEN reforms, which it hopes will pass into law at the end of the year, continue with the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill being scrutinised by the Welsh Assembly.

At the same time a consultation is being carried out on how the reforms should be introduced. For now, however, nothing has changed and the current system remains in place meaning that parents can continue to request an assessment for a SEN statement. Information on the Welsh system can be found in Education in Wales: A Guide for Parents.

Life online for young people with SEN

Dawn Cavanagh

Dawn Cavanagh

Dawn Cavanagh, whose teenage son has autism, considers the benefits and challenges of life online for young people with special educational needs (SEN) and discusses ways to teach young people with SEN to navigate the internet safely, while making the most of what the internet has to offer.

Like it or not we are living in a digital age. Today, you can get online anywhere, at any time, and can communicate with almost anyone in the world. Ensuring that young people make the most of the exciting opportunities the internet has to offer, while also being helped to stay safe online is high on the public agenda. But what if your child has special educational needs (SEN)? What then?

Children with SEN include those with emotional, social or behavioural difficulties, learning difficulties, and other complex needs. There are many ways in which young people with SEN are vulnerable to danger on the internet. Children with SEN (and especially those with a diagnosis of autism) may make literal interpretations of content online, which may affect how they respond; they may not understand the concept of friendship, which may lead to them being more trusting than their peers. They may also struggle to make judgements about what information is safe to share or not recognise that they are being bullied. Furthermore, they may not appreciate how their own behaviour may be construed by someone else as bullying.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are benefits to using the internet for young people with SEN. The internet can be used in creative and fun ways to support learning and social interaction. For my teenage autistic son, the interactive online gaming phenomenon Minecraft allows players to build and create textured cubes in a 3D virtual world. Minecraft enables my son to have complete control of his environment and to engage in his special interests: time travel and Doctor Who. There is nothing he loves more than jumping in and out of his tardis, exploring new dimensions. Minecraft has helped to nurture his conceptual thinking, so that he has become more adept at problem solving. For example, he has worked out how to operate the tardis without any instruction. Whilst my son gets confused and distressed by others’ attempts to join him in his gaming, some young people with autism benefit from Minecraft’s multiplayer mode, which can help develop their communication and social skills, as well as enhance their creativity.

AutCraft (Duncan, 2015) is a Minecraft server specifically for autistic children and their families. The environment has been modified so that players can roam free from the dangers frequently encountered in the game’s regular modes. While all this is good, the downside of Minecraft is that like so many video games it has the potential to become addictive. This is especially concerning for children with autism who may have tendencies towards obsessive compulsive type behaviour. Excessive screen time is a recurring concern for many parents, especially in terms of time spent away from family, as well as lack of exercise.

Young people with SEN are at greater risk of cyberbullying, online grooming and exposure to inappropriate content, yet less research has been conducted in this area compared with the mainstream population. Of the body of research that currently exists, the risks for a young person with SEN appear to be more profound due to increased vulnerability and social naivety. As a group they are more likely to be lacking in sexual knowledge, have difficulties with compliance or expressing consent, as well as recognising abusive situations. Furthermore, they are less likely to have opportunities to have romantic or sexual partners, so may seek the company of strangers online and offline when lonely (Normand and Sallafranque-St-Louis, 2016).

Research has revealed that many young people with SEN have experienced cyberbullying and discriminatory behaviour such as disablist language or jokes about disability online. This can lead to considerable emotional and psychological distress. Research conducted in the Netherlands, looking at the effects of cyberbulling among students with intellectual (learning) and developmental disability, found that higher rates of cyberbullying are associated with lower levels of self-esteem and higher reported depressive feelings (Didden et al., 2009). Research undertaken by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (England and Wales) (2013) revealed that as well as having experienced cyberbullying and discriminatory behaviour many young people with SEN felt that they had not been taught how to use the internet, or to stay safe online. Moreover, some young people used the internet to create an anonymous persona to hide their disability or actively avoided the internet altogether.

A more recent study (Bannon, NcGlynn, McKenzie and Quayle, 2015) investigating the perception of online risks by young people with SEN (aged 13-18 years) in Scotland revealed that while many young people with SEN were aware of a range of risks online, and could discuss how to stay safe, not all were able to put appropriate safety strategies into practice. Some described befriending strangers on the internet. There were examples of intentional risk taking, perhaps due to peer pressure to perform. For others risk-taking in their online behaviour appeared to be linked with poor understanding of the implications of their actions and/or difficulties with inhibitory control.

There was much variation in supervision and monitoring of online behaviour, with some families putting no supervisory strategies in place, whilst others blocked access to certain content, checked history and/or placed limits on the amount of time the young person spent online. Interestingly, while some young people sought the advice of parents, and occasionally teachers, about managing online risk, many also took the opportunity to learn from peers, especially if they thought that disclosure to a family member was likely to result in removal of internet privileges. Further research is needed, perhaps including parents and teachers, in terms of how best to support young people with SEN to stay safe and strong online, whilst making the most of what the internet has to offer.

So, how do we teach young people with SEN to navigate the internet safely? The first thing is to recognise that life online presents young people with SEN with different challenges, and then to tailor strategies accordingly.  Cerebra (cited in Digital Parenting, 2016), the UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of children with neurological conditions, make the point that young people with learning difficulties can sometimes be more trusting of strangers than other young people. The Cerebra guide (cited in Digital Parenting, 2016) suggests encouraging the young person to use a pseudonym (a fictitious name) online and getting him or her to seek help from a trusted adult if anyone asks for personal information, such as their address or where they go to school. The young person might also benefit from joining an online community that has been specifically set up for people with learning difficulties.

Further suggestions for limiting risk online for children and young people with autism and learning disabilities is available in Cerebra’s guide: Learning Disabilities, Autism and Internet Safety, available on Cerebra’s website.

©Dawn Cavanagh 2017, writing as a parent contributor for the Family Research Ambassadors Project run by the Centre for Education, Development and Research (CEDAR), at the University of Warwick and Cerebra.

­­­­­­­­­References

Anti-Bullying Alliance (2013) Cyberbullying and children and young people with SEN: the views of young people. Retrieved 13th February 2017. Available from https://www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/attachment/disabled-young-peoples-views-on-cyberbullying-report.pdf

Bannon, S., McGlynn, T., McKenzie, K. & Quayle, E (2015). The internet and young people with Additional Support Needs (ASN):  Risk and safety.  Retrieved 13th February, 2017. Available from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563215000321

Normand, C.L. & Sallafranque-St-Louis, F (2016). Cybervictimization of Young People with an Intellectual or Developmental Disability: Risks Specific to Sexual Solicitation. Retrieved 13th February, 2017. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25871891

Didden, R., Scholte, R.H.J., Korzilius, H., Jan, M. H., Moor, D.E., Vermeulen, A., O’Reilly, M., Lang, R., & Lancioni, G.E (2009). Cyberbullying among students with intellectual and developmental disability in special education settings. Retrieved 13th February, 2017. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19466622

Digital Parenting (2016). Vodaphone UK. Retrieved 13th February, 2017. Available from http://www.vodafone.com/content/digital-parenting.html

Duncan, S (2015). Autcraft.  Retrieved February 13th, 2017. Available from http://www.autcraft.com/

Useful links:

Anti-Bullying Alliance: http://anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/

Autcraft:  http://www.autcraft.com/

Digital Parenting website:  http://www.vodafone.com/content/digital-parenting.html

Digital Parenting magazine: http://www.vodafone.com/content/digital-parenting/learning-and-fun/digital-parenting-magazine.html

Special Friends (Free online community for people with learning disabilities, and their parents and carers): http://www.specialfriends.com/public/

Video Game Addiction Helpline: http://www.videogameaddiction.co.uk/gaming-addiction/minecraft.html

Improving early intervention for children with autism

Zarbanoo Rajput

Zarbanoo Rajput BA (Hons), mum to a 15 year old with autism and an active member of ABAAccess4all parental campaign discusses recent research on the use of early behavioural intervention for children with autism across Europe, and reflects on her own experience in the UK.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental condition affecting language, communication, behaviour, and socialization. At one end of the spectrum, there are individuals who can live an independent life, at the other end, there are children who start their school life with little or no language, display challenging behaviours, cannot use the toilet and have severe learning disabilities. Inclusion in mainstream education is uncommon for children at the more severe end of the spectrum, they are likely to be educated in a special school or unit.

Our beginning

I am a mum of 15-year-old teenager with autism who received an official diagnosis when he was aged four and half. Whilst it was difficult to come to terms with this diagnosis, we quickly pulled ourselves together and asked ‘what can we do to help our son?’, ‘What is the best thing to do?’ This is where the madness began. Every professional we spoke to had a different opinion. We had no idea who was speaking the truth. It was extremely difficult to access accurate information from a reliable source, let alone be supported with the intervention approach, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), we ended up choosing.

For more information about Autism and Applied Behvaioural Analysis (ABA) please see Professor Richard Hastings blog ‘What is ABA for children with autism for?’

Early intervention across Europe

I was thinking back to our family’s experience when reading a recent research study: Use of early intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorder across Europe.(1 ). The study was written by a total of 40 researchers from 32 Universities across Europe. The purpose of this research study was to get a picture of the use and the weekly number of hours of early intervention/therapy provided for young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in a number of European countries.

Parents from 18 European countries took part and completed an online survey, which asked about current use of intervention (type and number or hours per week) received at home, school and in a clinic setting such as a child disability clinic. In total, 1680 parents who had seven-year-old children or younger with autism spectrum disorder took part. Only parents of children up to the age of seven were in the study as by this age the majority of European children have started school.

The type of interventions the study was interested in included: behavioural intervention, developmental and/or relationship based intervention, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, other educational and psychological interventions, and parent training. When parents were asked about their use of a specific intervention type, it was noted that similar/identical therapy programmes were available with different names. Therefore, intervention examples were given specific to each country, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and Pivotal Response Training (PRT), when asked within a broader category question such as ‘is your child receiving behavioural intervention?’

The study found that there is variability in the use and intensity of early intervention between European countries. Seventy four percent of parents from the UK reported that their child received an intervention. Indicating that 25% of children in the UK were having no early intervention at all. The average intensity of early intervention in the UK per week was 6.97 hours. Poland was found to have the best early intervention rates in this study, with 98.7% of children having some form of intervention before they are 7 years old.

Eighteen percent of parents of children with autism from the UK were reported to be receiving a behavioural intervention (7.54 hours on average per week), 8.1% a developmental or relationship based intervention (4.57 hours), 62.2% speech and language therapy (1.11 hours), 26.1% occupational therapy (1.24 hours), 23.4% other educational and psychological intervention (7.93 hours) and 23.4% were receiving parent training (1.61 hours).

The study concluded that while there is evidence that each and every child with autism needs to access individualised, multidimensional and multi-disciplinary intervention, almost 10% of parents who took part in this study throughout Europe, reported no early intervention at all for their child. The UK was one of the worst performing countries, with 25% of children studied receiving no early intervention. The authors reiterate the importance of training professionals in identifying and treating ASD as early as possible so families are not left unsupported in day-to-day life.

Our experience of early intervention

The study outlined above suggests that children receiving behavioural intervention in the UK are receiving an average of 7.5 hours of therapy per week. While this is a good start only 18% of UK parents access this level of behavioural intervention. This number is low and reflects our own experience as well. Currently, post diagnosis, parents are referred to Early Bird and Early Bird Plus programmes, which are run by the leading autism charity, the National Autistic Society (NAS). Referrals are also made to other services such as Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Educational Psychology, and specialist Communication/Autism Teams. We received a diagnosis back in 2005-2006. Note, no referral was made to a behavioural specialist. It seems ABA or other evidence based behavioural interventions are not routinely offered by the NHS for young children in the UK. Reading this, one might think how lucky we are to have so many services available to our families. Unfortunately once you go through them all, you discover that, it is all flash and no substance.

Once we managed to take the diagnosis in, we started reviewing literature about autism interventions. The child psychiatrist we saw at diagnosis said that the more the child’s language develops, the better the prognosis. We were very concerned about Elias’ future. Aged four and half at diagnosis, Elias though had some language, was very far behind his peers. He couldn’t label colours, numbers, he had no understanding of phonics, and had major problems with haircutting and bath time, to name a few. Our family needed help, Elias needed help, help I was hoping to find going through the Early Bird Plus programme. Unfortunately we didn’t see the progress we were hoping for, so we began looking elsewhere.

We were fortunate to have heard about someone who had a special educational needs tribunal bundle to share with parents. The wealth of information available in this bundle opened up our eyes. There were studies showing positive results for children with autism receiving an ABA programme, including one, which was focused on the four to seven age range, which applied to us. Other studies were for younger children. Overnight, we became familiar with names of researchers and research studies we would never have known were out there. However, the minute we started mentioning to professionals the term “ABA” and our interest in using this approach with our son, all doors started to close in our face. We were steered towards a programme called Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children, also known as project TEACCH. ‘What did we do wrong?’ From our perspective, we made an educated decision about the best intervention option for our child, for which we were punished. We strongly feel more evidence based early intervention in general is needed in the UK, with currently too many children and families missing out.

Parents working together using research evidence

In the UK, many parents of children with autism I have met are very unhappy about the situation with autism diagnosis and early intervention, hence the need for ABAAccess4ALL campaign. ABA Access4All aims to improve UK understanding of and access to professionally managed ABA therapies for children with autism and other disabilities.

Many parents I have spoken to feel they have been misled about ABA and are angry about their child/children’s precious time being lost. Professional recommendations about early intervention for children with autism in general suggests that maximum gain can be made between the ages of two to four. However, diagnoses are often provided late or when early diagnosis is made, accurate information about effective interventions is not given to parents.

I believe that parent-led campaigns for UK services to make available evidence-based approaches for children with autism are an excellent way to use research evidence to give children the best start in life. ABAAcess4all is an example of one such campaign with an evidence-based focus. We will continue to strive for better services in the hope that all children and families receive what they need without parents being driven to bankruptcy, physical and mental exhaustion, and experiencing significant strain on their family relationships”.
©Zarbanoo Rajput 2016, writing as a parent contributor for the Family Research Ambassadors Project run by the Centre for Education, Development and Research (CEDAR), at the University of Warwick and Cerebra.

References

1. Salomone, E., Beranová, Š., Bonnet-Brilhault, F., Lauritsen, M. B., Budisteanu, M., Buitelaar, J., … & Fuentes, J. (2015). Use of early intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorder across Europe. Autism, Vol 20 (2) 233-249

Support for our Problem-Solving Toolkit Workshops

problem solving toolkitWe are very grateful to The Santander Community Fund, via the Community Foundation in Wales, and The Boshier-Hinton Foundation who have each awarded us a £5,000 grant to fund our Problem Solving Toolkit Workshops.

Their generous support means that we can help more parents and carers to access health, social care and education support services for their child, helping them to discover a better life together.

Our Problem Solving Toolkit and Workshops are designed to help families access the services that their children need, and are entitled to. The Toolkit is a comprehensive, practical and easy to use guide, packed with useful advice, solutions and precedent letters. You can download the Toolkit here.

Problem Solving Toolkit Workshops

This year we have launched our Problem Solving Toolkit Workshops which use the information and resources in the Toolkit to give parents, carers and professionals the skills and knowledge they need to advocate for themselves. Each workshop lasts for 3-4 hours and includes a presentation, case studies for group work and a chance to discuss and share experiences. The workshops are free.

We’ve had some great feedback from parents and professionals who attended our initial workshop:

  • “A wonderful guide to help parents, thank you so much. It is a real maze and you have provided a crutch for parents to use”. (A parent)
  • “I will be recommending this resource to the families that I work with. It is wonderful”.  (A professional)

Thanks again to The Santander Community Fund, via the Community Foundation in Wales, and The Boshier-Hinton Foundation for their generous support.

Why should I take part in research about families of children with learning disabilities?

University of Warwick logoThe CEDAR research centre at Warwick University needs 1000 children with learning disabilities and their families to help with a research project.

Jane Raca, whose son James has learning disabilities, autism and challenging behaviour, considers how research can help families like hers:

If someone had asked me to help with a research project when my son James was little, I would probably have asked them to go away. I was usually very tired and grumpy, because James didn’t sleep through the night. He is autistic and has learning disabilities. He often woke in the early hours and because he needs one-to-one supervision, I had to be awake too. My joints ached from moving and handling him, as he is a wheelchair user and doubly incontinent. All of his care needs were carried out by me or his Dad and despite the hoists in our house, this physical care was time consuming and heavy work.

James is now 17 and goes to a specialist boarding school, so I get a reasonable night’s sleep. If someone asked me to help with a research project today, I would be much more co-operative. But rest is not the only thing which has changed my approach. I have come to appreciate just how powerful evidence can be in influencing government policy and how it can result in more investment for disabled children.

When James was 5, family life was very difficult. He was frightened of leaving the security of the house and had a phobia about getting in the car. As a result, his brother and sister ended up trapped at home a lot of the time. I was deeply worried about them. What we really needed was someone to look after James to give us a break, so we could go out to the cinema, or for a pizza. Eventually we were referred to the social care department of our local authority, as a priority for support. Despite this, the council refused to fund any respite care and so began a long battle.

Six years later, for the first time local authorities were placed under a specific legal duty to provide short breaks for carers of disabled children. I didn’t know then that the law had changed. But looking back, I realise that we had stopped hitting a brick wall in our efforts to get respite and had started pushing at an open door.

The origins of the new law lay in campaigning by disability charities such as Mencap which led to parliamentary hearings, where parents, government ministers and other officials gave evidence. This was later followed by research commissioned by the Every Disabled Child Matters Campaign (EDCM) and the Department for Education (DfE). The research project “Aiming High” took place in two stages, starting in 2009 and ending in 2011. In this way, the families which were involved could be followed over time. The results showed that it was cheaper to provide short breaks to families who needed it, before they became so exhausted that they were incapable of looking after their children at all.

Now, headed by Professor Richard Hastings, The Cerebra Family Research Group based at CEDAR, a research centre at The University of Warwick and the research charity Cerebra, needs 1000 families of children with a learning disability to volunteer for another study over time. They want to look at the wellbeing of families who have children with a learning disability; not just mothers, but fathers and siblings as well. The study will further the understanding of what it is like to raise a child with a learning disability in the UK and will help to shape future support for families and children.

If your child is between 4 and 15 years, 11 months old and has learning disabilities (including children with autism or any one of a number of genetic syndromes as well) please consider taking part. It could make a real difference.

To find out more about the study and to complete the online survey please visit the website. If you have any questions please contact the research team by email: familyresearch@warwick.ac.uk or call 02476 524 139.

©Jane Raca 2016, writing as a parent contributor for the Family Research Ambassadors Project run by the Centre for Education, Development and Research (CEDAR), at the University of Warwick and Cerebra.

Why timely diagnosis of autism is important

Tracy Elliott, our Head of Research and Information explains why timely diagnosis of autism is important and tells us her family’s story:

Tracy and her family

Tracy and her family

“My daughter has a diagnosis of autism. The journey to diagnosis was traumatic and bewildering for my family. Aged 15 her self harming behaviour, driven by depression and anxiety, had become so severe she was a danger to herself and was admitted to a child and adolescence psychiatric unit five hours drive from our family home. She remained there for over 3 months.

Previously, unknown to us and for reasons not understood by herself, she had taught herself to copy and mimic the behaviour of her peers. From age 6 she knew she was different, she did not know why. She just felt something was very wrong and she had to hide ‘her weirdness’. Living in fear of ‘being found out’. At first this wasn’t so hard but as adolescence arrived it became impossible. She became suicidal.

The psychiatrist who saw her when she got to CAMHS had professional expertise and personal experience of autism (this isn’t always the case) and picked up on the autism, something no one else suspected as she did not fit any of the stereotypes. Her diagnosis followed within 6 months. The diagnosis explained to my daughter why she had the experiences she had, that she wasn’t ‘weird’, but had a neurological condition that meant her brain worked differently to that of most of her peers.

Exploring the diagnosis demonstrated that difference brought strengths as well as difficulties. Of course difficulties remain but they are understood, can be rationalised and coping strategies put in place. Things are no longer ‘impossible’ but ‘difficult at times’.  For my daughter her diagnosis came late. Mental health problems already entrenched and more difficult to address.

I was in a meeting recently that included senior medical professionals where a comment was made that early autism diagnosis was less of a priority to the NHS because without an effective intervention to offer there was less urgency required. While understanding the logic I was disappointed and saddened. It made me realise that people like myself and my daughter, who speaks publicly about her experiences, have to speak out. Key decision makers need to understand that even without an intervention an earlier diagnosis would have helped my daughter understand that she is not ‘weird’ but has a valuable contribution to make to her family, her friendships and society. That she is valuable not weird.

Earlier diagnosis could have limited the mental health problems that have plagued her adolescence and early adulthood. Earlier diagnosis would have made a difference to her and our family. Early diagnosis would have saved money on acute mental health services. As for intervention, well firstly it’s not all about interventions, understanding and support can go a long way. Secondly there are interventions that help, some currently being researched by Autistica, however accessing them is difficult (but that is a whole other discussion). My daughter did, eventually, receive valuable and effective intervention and it has helped. You can read my daughter’s story here.

Unacceptable delays for autism diagnosis exist across the UK. That’s for children who are already suspected of having an autistic spectrum disorder. For those children that don’t conform to stereotype, girls in particular, it’s even longer with some never getting a diagnosis. In my family’s experience diagnosis does matter, it does make a positive difference and that’s why I think timely diagnosis of autism is important”.

We want your stories about your family and getting an autism diagnosis. Do you think early diagnosis is important? What are your experiences?

Please send your stories to researchinfo@cerebra.org.uk.

Research and Information Request Service

In a survey we carried out in 2016 (with 1937 respondents), less than 41% of parents receive written information when they get a diagnosis for their child. In addition many families felt that the lack of reliable, accessible and impartial information hampered their ability to make informed choices for their family.

So as a parent or carer of a child with a brain condition you may be keen to look for more information about your child’s condition, therapies, treatments or other services on the internet. While the internet provides a huge amount of information, much of which is freely available and easy to access, not all websites give reliable information.

Our aim is to equip you with the knowledge, skills and confidence you need to do your own research, appraise the information you find and make your own decisions about what’s right for your family.

Parent Guide

As a first step our guide on Finding and appraising information and evidence on the internet makes some suggestions to help you search efficiently on the internet, and to appraise whether the websites you find present reliable and unbiased information.

Parent Research Requests

If you need further help, we will be happy to help. One of our Research Officers can help you frame your question in a way that will provide the evidence you are looking for. We can give advice on search strategies and key websites to explore as well as signposting you to sources of reliable, impartial information. Please get in touch with georgiam@cerebra.org.uk for more information on this service.

Your requests help others

Whatever information you are looking for, the chances are that it will also be useful to other families.  We use a systematic process for dealing with your research requests that allows us to identify and prioritise the issues that are concerning you. Where reliable evidence based information already exists we produce brief fact sheets signposting to it. Where such information is lacking, or does not meet your needs, we commission and produce evidence based guides for parents.

We have a range of Guides for Parents and factsheets that we have developed because of your questions. All of our guides are covered by The Information Standard, a recognised quality mark, which indicates that our information is accurate, accessible, impartial, balanced, based on evidence and well-written. Our guides have received excellent feedback with some recently being highly commended by the British Medical Association.

If you would like more information about our new Research and Information Request Service, please get in touch with georgiam@cerebra.org.uk

Please note that this service is no substitute for medical opinion or advice. We aim to provide information that will give you the information you need to help you make informed decisions about the care of your child in consultation with the medical professionals supporting your child.