A story by Tailor Ed Foundation
Our short breaks project supported children with autism aged 4 to 16 years who live in Edinburgh: it involved online Circle Time activities, summer holiday club, weekly play sessions and monthly soft play sessions when these were permitted by national and local Covid restrictions.
What Short Breaks did
Our short break programme was split into 3 parts:
Online circle time: 15 minute sessions were delivered online and followed the traditional School template - hello, check out the weather, a story, gentle exercise and good byes. Sessions were delivered Monday to Friday during the school holidays - Summer, October, Christmas in 2021 and the February break 2022. Numbers fluctuated between 2 and 8 children aged between 4 and 14 years. No booking/registration was required: we simply sent a zoom link to parents prior to the school holidays and they could choose which sessions to attend.
Monthly Soft Play sessions: in our original application we planned to run a monthly 2 hour soft play session at Time Twisters in Edinburgh. Due to covid restrictions they were not allowed to reopen until September 2021. Since then we have resumed the popular soft play sessions once per month: at times over 25 children with autism and other disabilities attend the sessions. Although the sessions are open to any of the children whom we support, we ask parents to inform us if they intend to attend the session which helps us manage numbers. The children are aged between 4 and 10 years.
Last year we partly adapted our approach and established alternative opportunities to cover for covid restrictions: to replace the monthly soft play sessions between April and September 2021 we ran two play sessions during the summer holidays - 7 x 3 hour sessions for Primary School aged children with autism and 4 x 3 hour sessions for Under 5's. These were closed sessions: we identified 19 children with autism who were missing the opportunity to play outside but could not cope with large groups. These groups worked really well which is why we have decided to offer weekly play sessions during term time.
All of these activities gave parent carers a short break whether it was 15 minutes during Circle Time, a couple of hours at the soft play sessions to sit and chat with other parents or during the holiday clubs to leave their children with our staff and have a few hours to themselves.
This programme tackled the BB priorities: complex needs. active leisure, independence, diversity and under 5's
What Tailor Ed Foundation has learned
Circle Time has been a great resource to help new families engage with our services. This has been reflected by the new families who started to get support in January 2022 through our Early Year services - our preschool service for children with autism aged 4 years - and who then joined Circle Time sessions in the February mid term break.
Sometimes unexpected challenges can be turned into opportunities: last year the soft play centre we have a great relationship had to remain closed for far longer than many public services for children such as schools. At the same time respite centres which are a lifeline for many families also remain closed. Consequently this meant our intended programme of monthly soft play sessions were cancelled yet parents need for some respite was more intensive than ever. Thus we approached 19 families with children with autism most in need of play and respite opportunities.
Parents told us the main summer holidays would be the worst, when their children would be most in need of play sessions. We decided to create a small holiday play session for children with autism and invite 8 children per session. After a few sessions we then decided to split the children into two groups - under 5's and Primary School aged children and limit each session to 6 children. The success of this pilot encouraged us to set up a Friday afternoon play session for under 5's with autism which has been running since September 2021.
This worked really well: by targeting families most in need and at the same time dealing flexibly with unexpected challenges we were able to address a key issue facing children with autism and their parents.
How Tailor Ed Foundation has benefitted from the funding
Generally Better Breaks funding is always really welcome, but last year it is fair to say the award has been most appreciated by families whom we support. It enabled us to continue to offer much needed short break activities for children with autism: crucially last year was at a time when other forms of short break activities and respite centres remained closed for far longer than most children's services. Parents were telling us that meant the short break programme we offered especially during the school holidays such as Circle Time and Holiday Club became even more important than normal. Last years Better Breaks grant helped Tailor Ed Foundation strengthen our reputation by for example setting up the holiday provision, by running online provision and as soon as Time Twisters reopened to resume our monthly soft play sessions at the very time parents and children with autism were desperate for short break opportunities. Although not part of our original bid, because we had the flexibility, we were able to pilot the new holiday club - we secured an additional small grant from the City of Edinburgh's Play Fund to cover additional costs. As this proved so successful we set up term time group play provision one a week for under 5's and have now decided to repeat the popular Holiday provision in 2022 and beyond.
100 children with autism will access our short breaks programme, taking part in at least one short break event.
During the funding window more than 100 children with autism took part in a range of short break activities including daily online Circle Time during school holidays, targeted play activities in the 2021 Summer holidays and monthly soft play sessions from September 2021 to March 2022 We delivered: 122 x 15 minute Circle Time sessions for 61 children with autism during the main school holidays. 6 x 2 hour Time Twister sessions for 67 children with autism monthly from September 2021. 7 x 3 hour Summer Holiday Play sessions for 12 primary School aged children with autism during the 2021 summer holidays. 4 x 3 hour Summer Holiday Play sessions for 7 under 5's with autism during the 2021 summer holidays. 16 x 2 hour Play sessions during term time for 15 under 5's with autism from September 2021 onwards.
H is a young boy aged 4 years with autism from a BAME family. He started getting support from our Early Years Service in February 2021. His family did not know anyone else with a child with autism, and as their child had only recently had his autism diagnosis they were still coming to terms with the implications. H's support worker was aware that he did not have any experience of playing with other children and that his parents were quite isolated and anxious about everything. His Mum was encouraged to get H to take part in the Circle Time sessions which he really enjoyed. Mum's confidence also grew by seeing other parents and children with autism taking part. When we set up the Under 5's Holiday Play provision we contacted the family to suggest this would be a great opportunity for H to take part in play activities. The first session H was quite shy and spent most of the time on his own but by the end of the second session he was beginning to join in group activities. His Mum was delighted as she also began to make friends with the other parents. When we continued the Under 5's group during term time H and his Mum were one of the first families to ask to take part. As these are still quite small groups, the young boy play quite happy with other children. His Mum enjoys the break and seeing her son having lots of fun. H has continued to take part in most Circle Time sessions during the school holidays. His parents are coming to terms with autism. The next step is for his Mum to take H to our soft play session but she is still a bit nervous as she feels it might be too busy and/or noisy for her son.
We will provide regular short break activities for up to 100 children with autism and their parent carers. Each child will have at least one parent carer present or around. Parents can take a short break whilst their child is taking part in the sessions or they can take part with their child.
More than 160 carers benefitted from the programme of short break activities. Parents feedback that even the 15 minutes in the mornings during the school holidays when our staff delivered Circle Time online gave them a few minutes to themselves. Parents accompanied their children to the monthly soft play sessions and enjoyed a chat with other parent carers whilst their children played on the soft play resources supervised by Time Twister and Tailor Ed staff. During the summer play club parents dropped their children at the start of the session and could then spend a couple of hours of free time doing whatever they wanted before returning to pick up their children at the end of the session.
In June 2021 we were approached by a few parent carers who were at their wits end planning for the summer holidays: recreational centres and respite centres were still closed due to covid restrictions. However their children were unable to cope with open play provision. R's mum asked us if there was anything we could do to give her just a few hours break each week as her son has so much energy he needs somewhere safe and where his needs are met to get rid of his energy. We established our new Holiday Club offering 2 sessions per week for 6 children with autism per session. We staffed the 3 hour sessions on a one to one basis using some of our BB funds and a small grant we received from the City of Edinburgh Play fund (£5000). R's Mum along with other parents dropped off their children and picked them up at the end of the session. R's mum really enjoyed getting a couple of hours break and her son loved getting the opportunity to run about and play in a safe environment. It helped that R has been supported by our staff for a number of years so not only did we know him, he was confident and comfortable with our staff. At the end of the summer holidays R's Mum told us what a difference these play sessions had made to her and her son, which is why we have decided to incorporate similar play group sessions into our programme of support during the 2022 Summer holidays.
Carers will get a breather from the stresses and strains of keeping their children entertained and amused whilst they are indoors. These short breaks in mornings and afternoons when their children are not at school are proven to help improve the wellbeing of parents.
Circle Time has proved really successful and has been one of the unintended positive outcomes of our response to covid-19. The 15 minute sessions delivered on digital platforms 5 days a week during the school holidays are activities that their children are familiar with and thoroughly enjoy. They are interactive which engages the children eg telling the worker to "stop" at exercises which they then take part in. Parents tell us these 15 minute sessions near the start of the day allow them to get a small break after some of the challenges of getting their child up and fed at breakfast. We are also told they give the children's day structure which for children with autism is so important.
S, a 6 year old with autism, has been one the keenest participants on Circle Time: he rarely misses a session. At first his mum would keep an eye of S, making sure he was happy with using the digital device. Fairly quickly she recognised that S was quite happy to take part without his mum's help. He would sign in early before the official start time and have a chat with the staff telling them his plans for the day. S's mum tells us she uses the 15 minute session to have a quick cuppa to prepare for the rest of the day which makes all the difference to her (and granny's day). Furthermore even when granny is visiting or when S goes to granny's he still expects to take part in Circle Time!
Children with autism and their parents will be less anxious, stressed or isolated as we plan to offer short break activities they can safely take part in at home, irrespective of local or national lockdown restrictions.
It had become clear during the covid-19 restrictions, especially during the two national lockdowns, that many of the children with autism whom we supported were very capable of accessing digital devices to take part in online activities: for the past two years we have even organised our annual Christmas Party with Santa by zoom. Circle Time has proven really popular during the school holidays. Parents told us because it was set up at the same time each morning this made it convenient for their child to take part. As the sessions were delivered online, it didnt matter if there was a lockdown or in some cases if a family was isolating. Parents frequently said just seeing a friendly, well known face was great for them and their child(ren). Up to a point our online games sessions were popular but once wider restrictions eased the number of children taking part began to fall off so we decided to stop this activity.
H and his mum are great examples how online short breaks such as Circle Time can make such a difference to children with autism and their parents, especially if this is a recent diagnosis when parents anxiety and stress levels can be high. Circle Time help H and his Mum meet other parents and children with autism which they said helped H's parent realise they were not alone. These new online breaks also gave H's Mum the confidence to go along with H to our Under 5 Holiday Club which further supported them both. Whilst H's mum and dad are still coming to terms with their son's autism diagnosis they have told us being able to meet other families in similar situations has helped them feel less alone.