CATSYPP after-school groups are so in demand that they have over 60 young people on their waiting lists. But the 55 lucky young people who already attend each week won’t be giving up their places any time soon – because the clubs have literally changed their lives.
The young people at Children on the Autistic Spectrum Young People’s Project have all been diagnosed with high-functioning autism. And as such they have difficulties communicating, making friends and managing their emotions. Supported by BBC Children in Need funds, the CATSYPP clubs – nicknamed CATS - are so much more than places for them to go to enjoy themselves: they also help improve their social skills and confidence and increase their level of independence in a safe environment.
Many of these young people would lead largely isolated lives without CATS: it was set up by Wendy Williams and her colleague Rob in response to the concerns of parents of high functioning autistic children of mainstream ability, who found they were excluded from an after-school social life because of their immature social, interaction and communication skills.
One of the original members of the CATS group in Reading is Tom, a 15-year-old adrenaline junkie who loves filmmaking and experimental cookery, inspired by wacky chefs like Heston Blumenthal.
Tom – himself now a proud peer mentor at one of their two clubs - is not only dealing with the social and communication difficulties inherent in Asperger Syndrome but faces further education and health challenges. Tom is dyslexic and struggles with co-ordination and inattention, making reading, writing and concentrating through the school day extremely difficult. In addition, Tom has a genetic condition called Neurofibromatosis Type 1, which means that throughout his life, tumours will grow along the nerves inside his body and on his skin. He currently has several tumours in his chest. And while the inspiring teenager continues to cope well with his numerous daily challenges and hospital appointments, Mum Nicky says that before he began attending CATS he had no real social life outside of school. As a result, it has been a lifeline for Tom - and his whole family.
“It is so much more than respite care for the parents and family,” says Nicky. “It’s a place that young people with autism feel part of; where they can have fun, enjoy going to and feel 'normal'.”
CATS and its peer-mentoring programme aims to support as many autistic young people as possible and has been a huge success.
“They identify which areas the teenagers are struggling with, such as communicating with the opposite sex, listening, boundaries and what is appropriate,” explains Nicky. “They explain how to do everyday activities that a 'normal child' would either pick up automatically or would learn from 'hanging out' with friends and peers. These are all things which our autistic children don't pick up and don't do - either because they generally have no friends or because their common sense, safety, or appropriate communication skills are so lacking, they would not be safe doing these things without an adult present.”
CATS guides Tom and his friends in all these key areas whilst making it fun and social so it doesn’t feel like a chore.
CATS founder Wendy says she has seen a huge change in Tom. “Tom has come on brilliantly in the three years I’ve known him in terms of social confidence and independence but the biggest change I’ve seen in him is that he now consistently shows an interest in the thoughts and needs of other people and how to engage appropriately with them."
“So he might now ask his mum about her day rather than expecting just to talk about himself. The positive feedback he gets from this has been a huge boost to his self-esteem.”
Tom is also extremely proud of his job as a mentor at the club, and for the support he receives from his own mentor, Dan. As Nicky admits: “Having a 'cool' teenager to learn from rather than 'mum' - there's no contest!"
A grant from BBC Children in Need, made possible by your donations, funds the costs of running two CATS groups in Reading and Maidenhead.
“If it wasn’t for CATS, Thomas would be playing on his computer at home most of the time and I would be incredibly fearful about his future,” says Nicky. “Last year he turned to me and said: ‘I have a very full life don't I mum?’ For a child who had no life outside of school, apart from trailing around after Mum, this is nothing short of a miracle.”
Supporting BBC Children in Need, no matter how big or small your contribution, makes a real difference to the lives of children and young people right on your doorstep.
Sign up to our Hero Hub at www.bbc.co.uk/Pudsey to gain access to exclusive news and fundraising tools.