A group of county councillors have become Autism Champions in order to raise awareness of autism in their local area and champion the needs of autistic adults, children, young people, and their families.
A councillor led approach to addressing issues relating to autism support services in Cumbria by the establishment of a small group of champions who have proactively raised awareness of autism over the past six years.
In 2016 the County Council Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Advisory Board set out to better understand the needs of autistic people and their families in Cumbria. It explored existing services, delivery issues including geographical consistency, and waiting times to access services across the county.
The Board heard views from health commissioners, the NHS, specialists in Children and Families Services and Health Care and Communities working within the council. It recognised that support for autism does not sit with one service, and looked for views from education, health and third sector support organisations as well as seeking additional testimony from parents of autistic children and from educational professionals. Three members of the Board had personal experience through autistic family members.
The Board identified that families often were uncertain where to find information, support, resources or help in relation to autism including information and support on transitions from school to work and that the resources and support that were available may be some distance from their home, or even in Manchester.
There was a clear need to help local people access information and support that was more local to them. One of the Board recommendations to cabinet was to “promote better awareness of autism among Members and engage with Local Committees to look at how best to promote Autism awareness within communities.”
It was decided that the way to raise awareness at Local Committee level was through establishing an Autism Champions Group. Autism Champions are County Councillors who have chosen to promote awareness of autism in their local area, and champion the needs of autistic children, young people, and their families as well as autistic adults.
There are six elected members on the network , one representing each of the Local Area Committees for Cumbria County Council, each of which has a devolved budget. The group is supported by a Community Development Officer from each of the local area teams and chaired by a Strategic Policy and Scrutiny Advisor who oversees the workplan and priorities agreed by the Member Champions. The workplan focuses on community cohesion, inclusion and integration, rather than service delivery.
The Champions group has been meeting since 2018 and it comes together every three months to talk, offer mutual support, advice and bring in expertise to help determine priorities and to help make their work more effective. As well as the members and community development workers this informal meeting invites frontline staff, Special Educational Needs and Disability staff or other ‘experts’ to take part.
The Champions have increased awareness of autism in the county by giving awareness talks to local community groups, businesses, frontline staff and Parish Councils and supporting Autism Awareness Week. They have been involved in, or supported, the development of:
- Specialist ‘collections’ of books, DVDs, resources and equipment across Cumbria meaning families feel less worried and better supported. The collections are entitled, 'Autism? Your questions answered'. This has been particularly successful in Whitehaven, Kendal and Carlisle.
- A County Council neurodiversity policy to help support managers and employees, promote a greater understanding of neurodiversity, and seeks to eradicate any discriminatory practices, as well as the development of neurodiversity eLearning modules which all County Council staff are required to complete as part of their equality and diversity training.
- A Thursday Social Media chat that enables people to have contact and peer support between appointments or scheduled meetings.
How is the new approach being sustained?
There has been no need for specific funding for this initiative as the officer level support is a part of the officer roles and each local area committee has a devolved budget, so can choose to use their budget to support projects that the Autism Champions group has advocated for.
In 2023 Cumbria County Council will become two unitary authorities, Cumberland and Westmoreland. The Autism Champions Group is developing a strategy for how the group might continue to work across the two new authorities and to position itself to advocate for its value. To some extent this will depend on what power and budgetary responsibility is devolved to local level through parish or town councils.
A number of lessons have been learned including:
- Local knowledge of priorities and needs has retained a focus on small manageable interventions and awareness raising activities.
- Officer support and time to help make projects happen has been invaluable.
- Clarity of purpose is essential. This might include a mandate from cabinet, role descriptions and involvement of all stakeholders including council SEND services and voluntary sector organisations from the beginning.
- Induction for members so they understand their role. And have a fuller understanding of policy development, community development and engagement work, and operational day to day services
- The model brings several advantages:
- As it is informal it has a degree of flexibility, brings life experience to the fore and allows people to pursue passions.
- It is community focused not based on the scrutiny of specific services which encourages a place based approach
- As it is based on local priorities there does not have to be geographical consistency.
The Champions model can be effective and can be seen as a model to be replicated in other priority areas, however, it can become difficult to manage a proliferation of ‘Champions’ groups. It is necessary to understand the resourcing pressures, and also the big strategic priorities, otherwise you can become overwhelmed with ‘Culture Champions’, ‘Equalities Champions’ and other Champions groups.