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Autism charity praises government digital skills investment

Wednesday, November 12th 2014 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

An award-winning autism charity says the government is taking “positive steps” to equip people with the skills to get online.

Autism West Midlands (AWM) picked up two gold awards at the Digital Impact Awards last month for Connect, a social media platform for people with autism and their families.

The service was launched in April and is funded by the Department for Education.

Julia Begley, digital community executive at the charity, said: “We wanted to find a way that we could support as many people as possible for free, without anyone needing to have eligibility for social care funding for example, or funding from the Job Centre.

“A lot of people with autism don’t need huge interventions but they can feel quite isolated, lonely and the instances are worryingly high when you survey adults with autism.

“Also parents because they spend so much of their time loving and being devoted to their children they sometimes forget to look after themselves and make time for themselves, so we wanted to find a way to reach all of those people.”

All of the content on Connect comes from its users – either directly or via suggestions made to AWM.

“The whole thing is a safe space where people can come together and get some peer support from people with similar experiences,” said Ms Begley.

“In total we’ve got around 4,000 users and members so the demand is there. We’ve had a couple of real success stories – one person has started teaching computer programming because he met people through our site and then built his own site to give people tutorials."

"Another person who lived out of area and when he was moving he found Connect and through that he found our physical services, and he’s now taking part in some of our support groups and social groups.

“It’s wanted, it’s needed and it’s a really nice way of providing a social space for people.”

The government's funding of projects like Connect forms part of its digital inclusion strategy, which aims to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25% by 2016.

“They are making really positive steps," said Ms Begley. “There is funding there to encourage people to get online and help to get people working online."

She highlighted two different issues – getting people to use the hardware and helping them understand the appropriate ways of using it.

“At the moment we do things to help people to understand the social rules online and that applies to anyone with autism who is able to use the internet,” she added.

“The online world can be really positive for people with autism. A lot of people struggle with sensory issues but on the internet people can create their own environment so they can be relaxed and calm.

“A lot of people suffer with anxiety so they can interact with people when they’re at home and feel safe.”

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