Maria was an architectural designer until the company she worked for closed while she was on maternity leave. At the same time that her son was diagnosed with autism, and the transition to the new school was not a smooth one. “Initially they weren’t using the funding towards his support, which is sadly a common theme that we find with most families who have autistic children. So it wasn’t a great time for me to look for a new job, but it was the same time that the opportunity to start a new charity arose, so I put all of my efforts into that”, explains Maria.
Inspired by Family Action’s Saturday support group and with support from Voluntary Action Islington and Islington Giving, she and a group of parents decided to start a charity called SEN Family Saturdays for families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the Islington community.
Catch up & animal themed activities in September 2020 by SEN Family Saturdays
“We run Saturday groups, with an hour of arts & crafts and free play, and then that was followed up with soft play”, Maria says, and adds, “Trained staff with experience with children with Special Educational Needs would look after the children while the parents had a space to chat to each other, exchange experiences, strategies, and connect.”
Since the start of the pandemic, SEN Family Saturdays have only been able to meet face-to-face once in an outdoor setting at the end of summer. “Right at the beginning of the first lockdown, we sent several packs to the families with craft supplies and ideas and resources, like flashcards, mood fan… so that they would have some kind of sense of routine for the children while schools were closed”, explains Maria. They also bought some toys for the children and offered them a choice of different sensory equipment, as “during the first lockdown, children weren’t even allowed to play with the park equipment, it was important for them to still get the physical exercise and the sensory input that they needed to self-regulate”.
Craft activity packs and Christmas presents for the families by SEN Family Saturdays
Families are in different, complicated situations and restrictions are affecting them in ways they weren’t anticipating. “Two of them had a baby during lockdown, and sadly one of the fathers from the group died from Covid-19 and some of the parents were suffering from mental health problems”.
“Personally, I struggled with two children at home, I was not able to go to the store. I was relying on others to provide that kind of support. And then the schools were also telling me that my child couldn’t go, even though he had an EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan).They were telling us that there was a parent at home who wasn’t working, so I could provide that support. I had to take care of my two children and my youngest, who’s three and was still breastfeeding. She was actually giving me more trouble than my oldest son, who has autism”.
Maria Paladini, Trustee and co-founder at SEN Family Saturdays
Through the connections with other families, Maria found out that some children who had autism were being offered childcare for their siblings, “so that helped a lot, I was able to contact the social communication team and they were able to contact the nursery that my daughter had been going to before, who offered some time and then I was able to convince the school, to take back my son for a few days, which gave me a bit of respite, which was very much needed.”
Keeping connected through the festive season
Maria and the rest of parents have a Whatsapp group that they use to keep connected. “Initially we were using it just to confirm people attending and sending some links now and again, but we’ve been using it more regularly to provide the answers that we needed whenever anyone knew something, and links to free resources and things like that. So the chat has been very useful to share that information.” Now that the children are back at school, they are also exploring the option of trying some online workshops using Zoom, “we’re going to test it out, see how well it works or doesn’t, and fingers crossed. I’m hopeful that it’s something that we can rely on during these times where we’re not sure when the next event will be!”
More than ever, #ChristmasConnections
Connecting with friends, family and your community has never been more important. Our partner organisations, like SEN Family Saturday, are working tirelessly to bring people together (even if not in person!) this festive season.
We are running an Art Challenge Giveaway on social media, feel like getting creative? You could win a Cass Art Oil Painting Set! What to do? Simply:
- Draw, paint or make any form of art under the topic of ‘Christmas Connections’
- Post a photo of your art on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, tag @isgiv and use the hashtag #ChristmasConnections (or send it to firstname.lastname@example.org)
- And you’re in to win! Anyone can enter! We’ll draw 3 winners on the 16th of December!