Cutbacks could damage autistic projects

GOVERNMENT cuts could force the closure of a successful project helping the families of hundreds of children with autism.The future of the Suffolk Autism Project, set up a year ago in Pytches Road, Woodbridge, is in serious doubt following an announcement that the Children's Fund has overspent.

GOVERNMENT cuts could force the closure of a successful project helping the families of hundreds of children with autism.

The future of the Suffolk Autism Project, set up a year ago in Pytches Road, Woodbridge, is in serious doubt following an announcement that the Children's Fund has overspent.

There are also numerous other projects at risk throughout the county which help children with a variety of different issues but yesterday they were all given a six-month stay of execution.

Margaret Hodge, minister for children, said in the House of Commons on Thursday: "The Children's Fund was allocated £450m in the 2002 spending review. By September 2003, 302,000 children and families were using the services provided by the fund. However, efforts to ensure that all allocations were spent have resulted in a projected overspend. Reductions were therefore made in allocations for 2003-04 onwards.


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"Following my discussions with key stakeholders, we have taken action from 2003-04 to address the most difficult problems, and I am now urgently re-examining the allocations for next year. I expect to write to partnerships in the next few days.''

Lindsay Towns, the Suffolk Autism Project's development officer, said: "Amidst planning our one-year celebrations, news of the possible closure of the project has been a terrible shock to all involved.

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"In the past year support from the local community has helped us run two HELP! Programmes for parents, autism awareness workshops, a Saturday club in Stowmarket and a drama group for children with autism. Now, more than ever, we need local support to help secure the future of this much needed project."

It costs £103,000 in this financial year to fund the Woodbridge-based project and this includes salaries for two full-time and three part-time staff. In December, the project was told there would be a 15% reduction in the grant for 2004-05 and then in January it was warned that the Department for Education and Skills had over-committed resources to the Children's Fund and could not meet all the obligations.

A spokeswoman for the National Autistic Society said the Suffolk Autism Project was trying to find someone else to fund the work.

"The response from people has been amazing but it is not looking that good. This one group has touched so many different people and it has been such a great success. Now it has really touched the nerve that funding could be cut," she said.

The Project develops educational resources for families, helps them to set up parent support groups, identifies and discusses their needs, sets up social networks for children, raises awareness of autistic spectrum disorders and recruits volunteer befrienders.

Autism is a lifelong disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to others around them. An autistic child appears normal but exhibits behaviour that onlookers may describe as naughty.

Tony Lewis, the county's portfolio holder for children's services, said: "We are working hard with the local Children's Fund to make sure that the project is safeguarded at least in the short term.

"The Children's Fund will fully fund all the projects for the first six months of the 2004-5 financial year. This will give time to assess the effectiveness of projects and to try to find alternative funding streams, if necessary.''

Richard Spring, MP for west Suffolk, said: "In the short time they have been operating they have created a database of over 400 parents and carers - many of these families are in my constituency.

"It would be a tragedy if all the hard work and good were lost due to a lack of Government funding."

richard.smith@eadt.co.uk

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