A mother has used her experience as a carer for her autistic son to set up a charity to help others in similar circumstances.
Carol Chisholm, 50, established Appaws For Autism in 2015 and is now working with an MSP to lobby the Scottish Government and local authorities for pupils with the condition to be given greater support within schools.
The Cowdenbeath-based charity offers practical advice and support for families caring for relatives with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as providing training for assistance dogs.
Ms Chisholm, who has volunteered for various charities since the age of 12, was moved to help others after being left frustrated by the quality of support on offer to her son Christopher, 23.
She blames a lack of resources at local level and an absence of wider understanding of autism for making his schooling a tough experience.
“Christopher rarely leaves the house, which I believe is due to the ineffective support and teaching he has received all his life,” she said.
Everyone should be free to be themselvesCarol Chisholm
“As he became an adult, I found that existing services were not suitable for him because he is considered high-functioning for someone with autism – he can walk, he can talk etc.
“But his processing works differently from others. He doesn’t want to sit in groups – he just wants to be himself.”
A former education support officer who was worked across the country, Ms Chisholm believes the lack of appropriate help for autistic children is a UK-wide issue and not confined to Scotland.
“It doesn’t matter if you have autism or not, everyone should be free to be themselves,” she continued. “We want to encourage greater acceptance in society of people across the spectrum of autism.
“What makes us different from other charities is that we don’t close our doors. We’re available to offer support 24 hours a day. Myself and the charity’s co-founder, Joanne Rankine, will often get calls from parents until three or four in the morning.
“We also provide advocacy on health and social care issues, as it can be a very stressful and intimidating task for parents.”
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Appaws for Autism is currently in discussions with Cara Hilton, Labour MSP for Dunfermline, regarding a possible motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for a change in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which was last amended in 2005.
“We want every new school built in Scotland to have improved accessibility for children with ASD,” said Chisholm. “If a child with ASD has a meltdown, they need somewhere they can calm down and de-stress - that’s something that is lacking in many mainstream schools at present.
“Children on the spectrum have huge sensory issues. Because of that, a regular classroom environment is not always ideal for them. Children may withhold their emotions until they leave school for the day and return home - and that’s where the meltdown happens.
“We’re not calling for huge changes. Schools need to have more adaptable classrooms and improved autism training.”
The charity is hoping that the support of MSP Hilton will lead to the Scottish Government seriously considering its calls for reform.
“Carol is a fantastic advocate for her cause and a great support to the parents she represents,” Ms Hilton said.
“Awareness of ensuring the learning environment in our schools is designed to meet the needs of children with autism, is patchy but then this is little surprise when we consider that teacher training programmes and in service days for existing teachers, simply don’t focus enough on autism awareness.
“Many parents of children with autism feel their children are being failed by the education system. It can’t be right that so many families have to fight every step of the way to get the diagnosis and the extra support their children need.
“I have been urging the cabinet secretary for education to act to ensure that every child with autism has the right to a tailored learning plan, to ensure every single child receives maximum benefit from their time at school, and allows for the method of teaching to be adapted to suit the child’s preferences and behaviour.”