Susannah Kirkman visits a club where autistic children learn to mix and make friends
Before we started coming to SNAPP, Umer had nowhere to go and nothing to do after school apart from being on the computer by himself," says Angela Kayani, who is full of enthusiasm for an after-school club which is aimed specifically at children on the autistic spectrum, like her son.
There is a happy hum of activity as children and parents work together on computer programs or try their hand at papier mache or painting. SNAPP is a lively yet relaxed club offering a wide range of IT and art activities and support for families. It is a joint venture between Finchley Catholic high school and the St Nicholas Academy for Autism Trust, a new charity founded by Christine Haugh and her husband, whose two young sons have autism and attend the club.
"We felt it would help to do something positive," said Ms Haugh, who is SNAPP's project officer. Her day job is based at Middlesex university, where she smoothes the transition to higher education for students with autism and Asperger syndrome (AS). Her duties also include organising provision for learners with special educational needs in north London, as part of the Department for Education and Skills's AimHigher project.
Ms Haugh is a superb networker and has used her contacts to publicise the club, which has more than 30 families on its books. The art sessions, which are run by an artist who has AS, focus on a set project, like mask-making.
The IT group develops computer literacy, showing club members how to create personal passports using Microsoft PowerPoint and how to play games.
Individualised software is being created by a senior lecturer in computer studies at Middlesex university and her multimedia students. Through the activities, children learn how to take turns, share and interact with other people; skills which those on the autistic spectrum find challenging.
The club runs throughout the year and welcomes the siblings of club members, which makes life much easier for the many families who have one child with autism and one who does not. Ms Haugh is now planning some summer outings, including a visit to Chessington.
She also arranges speakers, who have included officers from the London Borough of Barnet's Caring Partnership, Sencos from schools and a representative from the charity, Resources for Autism, a scheme offering support workers for family outings so that children can practise their social skills in restaurants or libraries.
An extra dimension is added by Years 8 and 9 pupils from Finchley Catholic high school, who act as 'buddies" to the younger children. "I enjoy it,"
said Alex Greene. 14. "If you work with the computers you can see the children learning things. They get to know you and say, 'Alex, can you help me?'"
"It is good for our boys to have experience of special needs," said Matt Connolly, head of Year 9. "Helping at the club is part of the school's ethos, which is based on putting faith into action and working in the community."
The school also provided technicians to help with computer glitches and finance the club, until it won a bid for funding as an extended schools programme from Barnet council. The extra money has enabled the club to open weekly and to pay for more equipment and the art tutor.
"The club is a lifeline," said Ms Kayani. "Initially, I was worried about how Umer would react to the other children, but he's made friends, I've made friends; you feel relaxed because no one is commenting on your child's behaviour."
"You can become extremely isolated," said Stephanie Moriarty, who has a seven-year old son with autism. "You can't go to a restaurant because your child might behave inappropriately. You might want to visit friends but your kid can't handle it or their kids can't."
"You can talk to anyone; they all understand," said Sarah Prince, whose 12-year-old son has just been permanently excluded from his secondary school for disruptive behaviour. She is worried because he is only receiving five hours of home tuition a week and is already becoming unused to the routine and structure of school life.
Ms Prince and other parents are discussing the difficulties pupils with high-functioning autism face. They feel there is nothing between provision for children with severe learning difficulties who can't access the mainstream curriculum and bright pupils with AS, who are capable of passing GCSEs but don't have the socialisation skills needed for school.
Ms Haugh believes that young people with autism can fall into a black hole without the right support. To disseminate good practice, the St Nicholas Academy has recently started a national newsletter, the ASC Good Practice Guide, highlighting imaginative projects. Co-editor Chris Mitchell, who was diagnosed with AS at the age of 20, is an advocate for Asperger's. The newsletter has taken off, with dozens of new subscribers and contacts from all over the UK. It appears on the website of the Asperger Syndrome Foundation and goes right to the heart of parents' concerns. The current issue includes details of a football club for seven to 11-year-olds, a summer play scheme, employment support for the 16-plus, a lecture on the latest research into autism and a group at the Maudsley hospital to help boys with autism who are being bullied in mainstream school.
The St Nicholas Academy's next project is to find the funding to open a day school for high-functioning secondary students with autism.
"Parents are crying out for this," Ms Haugh said. "These children shouldn't have to go to a boarding school miles from their homes."
* Some names have been changed.
* The ASC Good Practice Guide newsletter can be found at: www.aspergerfoundation.org.uk in the "Information Sheets" and "Links" areas of the site