Reaching out to help charity that has family at its heart

The Big Lottery Fund has awarded REACH a �77,000 grant
The Big Lottery Fund has awarded REACH a �77,000 grant

Most modern-day parents will tell you that today’s children have busier social lives than them!

Between parties, past-times, and play dates, it’s often difficult to fit it all in.

But what happens when your little one can’t attend a normal dance class or swimming lesson or enjoy simple childhood pleasures like playing outside with neighbouring children?

This was the question facing a group of parents in Lanarkshire who had children with autism.

And when they asked what hobbies and play opportunities their children could take part in, the response made their hearts sink.

It led to the formation of REACH Lanarkshire Autism, a parent-led charity which has worked to develop a timetable of activities and playtimes suitable for children with autism and Aspergers syndrome.

When first launched in September 2012, only a handful of parents used it; today the service has 175 local families as members.

The network of parents running REACH has been kept on its toes, organising fundraising, compiling databases, and working with partners, service providers and instructors to put on an exciting and varied programme of events.

Some work up to 20 hours a week just so their children and their peers can play or learn a new skill.

But now, they won’t have to do it all themselves. Thanks to a £77,000 grant from The Big Lottery Fund Scotland awarded last week, REACH will have an office in Cambuslang for three years, an admin worker and a family support worker.

The aim is to give the volunteers a helping hand, allowing REACH to increase its capacity and sustainability.

“It’s amazing,” said Kirsteen Allan, a parent and trustee of the charity.

“Everyone is so happy; it’s a huge weight off our shoulders.

“This is by far the largest grant we have ever had.

“We are all parents of children with autism.

“Everyone has been using their own skills and qualities to contribute and we have all pitched in.

“But it was becoming too much for us, so this grant is really amazing.”

REACH’s first activity was a dance class in East Kilbride, followed by a weekly event when they had exclusive use of a soft play area which attracted 60 children.

Kirsteen said: “So many parents realised there was nothing for children with autism to do.

“They would go along to mainstream activities and hobbies but could be asked to leave because they are not keeping up or understanding.

“But why should these children be left out? If they have no activities, nothing to do, they are stuck at home with computers.

“It’s isolating at every level. The kids have no one to play with, and the parents can’t get out and meet other parents. But we are all about inclusion.

“This way the whole family – kids, parents and siblings – can meet people in the 
same boat.”

The idea caught on quickly. Within a year, REACH was holding activities in five areas, and extended from South Lanarkshire to North Lanarkshire.

It now offers football camps, music groups, arts and crafts, gaming nights, a swimming group attended by 38 children every week, taekwondo and horse therapy.

Kirsteen said: “We offer parents ordinary activities with extra support, but we don’t want them to pay more, so the extra support element is subsidised by the parents through the fundraising we do.

“Sometimes we have had to fundraise very quickly to cover the cost of activities.

“If we can raise £300 a month, then that covers our activities. We talk to and brief the people taking the classes or activities.

“Unless you are a parent of an autistic child, you will never understand what it’s like. You have to live with them to know how they act and what triggers it.

“That’s why it’s the parents themselves who talk to the instructors and brief them and make sure they are comfortable.

“The feedback we get from parents is that it’s a lifeline, and that they don’t know what they would do without it. The big thing for them is that the children have fun.

“The development stuff is all great and it helps but parents just want their kids to get out and play.”

REACH run activities for children aged three years to 18, but want to extend that right up to 25.

Kirsteen added: “With 900 children diagnosed with autism every year in Lanarkshire alone, there are definitely more families we can help.”

For more information, visit www.reachautism.org.uk.