Bolster Community brings Autism Connect launch celebration to Stormont!

Martina Flynn (Vice Chair Bolster Community), Liz Kimmins MLA, Jacinta Linden CEO Bolster Community, Dr Ivor Crothers (SHSCT) and Martina McAloon, Sinead Hughes & Maria McKevitt (MDT Team, Newry).Martina Flynn (Vice Chair Bolster Community), Liz Kimmins MLA, Jacinta Linden CEO Bolster Community, Dr Ivor Crothers (SHSCT) and Martina McAloon, Sinead Hughes & Maria McKevitt (MDT Team, Newry).
Martina Flynn (Vice Chair Bolster Community), Liz Kimmins MLA, Jacinta Linden CEO Bolster Community, Dr Ivor Crothers (SHSCT) and Martina McAloon, Sinead Hughes & Maria McKevitt (MDT Team, Newry).
Local charity Bolster Community has hosted a celebratory launch for their Autism Connect programme at Stormont, kindly sponsored by Liz Kimmins MLA (host) and co-sponsored by Diane Dodds MLA and Cathal Boylan MLA - to celebrate the expansion and extension of their current Autism Connect service.

The new Autism Connect programme launching September 2024, builds on an initial pilot programme established by Bolster back in 2022 and will offer autistic adults psychosocial supports across three locations, Armagh, Newry and Banbridge and will complement and build on the existing Autism Connect project, scaling participants numbers and expanding geographically.

Jacinta Linden, CEO Bolster Community said, “To get to the house on the hill, with the lights on and a beating heart for autism, has been a dream come true for us.

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"We’re accidental Autism champions, that seems to be the way with Bolster, we react to the need, gather the evidence, meet the ask and deliver the programme in partnership – and we’ve been so blessed to find partnership and innovation with the Southern Trust, with the GP Federation, and with the National Lottery Community Fund who have committed £500,000 over five years to help us deliver the programme.”

Emer Maguire - musical/comedian, BBC presenter and 'all-round legend' spoke and sang at the Autism Connect launch event.Emer Maguire - musical/comedian, BBC presenter and 'all-round legend' spoke and sang at the Autism Connect launch event.
Emer Maguire - musical/comedian, BBC presenter and 'all-round legend' spoke and sang at the Autism Connect launch event.

Martina Flynn, Vice Chair of Bolster Community (Board) said, “Whenever we first began our research into Autism support in the Southern Trust area, we never dreamt that within a few short years that we’d be launching a service at this scale, but here we are and rightfully so.

"Back in 2021 when we hosted the ‘Being Awesome’ conference… it came through loud and clear at that time from our participants that there was a huge gap in services for adults with an autism only diagnosis. So from there, we listened and as we always do at Bolster, we acted swiftly and established Bolster’s Autism Connect service, a community based Autism service pilot, which launched in 2022.

"Within this pilot we put our service users and their needs at the core of this programme – and now just 2 years on, Bolster Community in partnership with our colleagues at the Southern Trust and the MDT Team, and the incredible support from the National Lottery Community Fund – we can now broaden the support on offer and help so many more Autistic Adults find community, connection and support within the Southern Trust.”

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Dr Ivor Crothers, Clinical Director Psychology Services SHSCT and Commissioner of Autism Connect, elaborated on the achievements of the pilot so far saying, “…the project has already addressed many of the needs of the Autistic Community… namely an autistic centred safe space, where individuals can develop new skills, socialise, engage and grow together.

Some of the crowd who attended the Autism Connect launch event.Some of the crowd who attended the Autism Connect launch event.
Some of the crowd who attended the Autism Connect launch event.

"From the pilot, the evidence that came out was clear with positive improvements for participants in terms of meaningful engagement, activities, communication skills, relationship building and emotional well-being. These outcomes are certainly to be commended, but of particular note…the improvements found in terms of participants confidence and self-esteem are really something that this project can be exceptionally proud off and should not be underestimated.

"These are providing vital road maps for understanding and navigating the complexities of the adult world, often where the lack of structure can be a major hindrance to people with autism.”

Martina McAloon, Multi-disciplinary Social Work Team lead (MDT, Newry) outlined the potential for new Autism Connect service saying “…together we can build a more inclusive society, where adults with autism are valued, supported and given opportunities to succeed. The demand for support and opportunities for adults with autism is increasing and addressing this need through GP Practices (via the MDT), is a proactive step towards better outcomes. Our new partnership approach, Bolster by dedicated funding, will enable tailored comprehensive care and resources that significantly improve quality of life for autistic adults.

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"This initiative emphasises early interventional, personalised support and community exploration, ensuring everyone receives the support they need to thrive. MDT Social work, and myself, is proud to be involved in this project…By maintaining a strong focus, collaboration, and resources, we are dedicated to making a lasting impact and setting a new standard for support services for adults with autism.”

Orla Flinnighan from Bolster Community, thanks the Newry Group.Orla Flinnighan from Bolster Community, thanks the Newry Group.
Orla Flinnighan from Bolster Community, thanks the Newry Group.

Emer Maguire, the amazingly talented musical/comedian and BBC presenter, provided a brilliant insight into her challenges as an autistic person.

In her introduction she said, “So I’m autistic and I know there is a lot of support needed for autistic adults but a lot of times I feel like if you’re an autistic adult without a learning disability, you really, really get left behind – and a lot of people don’t actually understand the impact, that living as an autistic adult, and experiencing burnout, can have… people don’t understand the difficulties behind the scenes, particularly if you think about adults who don’t have a learning disability who have that more subtle mask presentation, who look like they get a long really, really well, in everyday life… those people are usually trying really, really hard to mask any difficulties.”

In closing the event, Liz Kimmins MLA and Chair of Health Committee, said: “I can’t explain how proud I am to host this event, we’re often asked to co-sponsor events here at Stormont, particularly in my role as health spokesperson for Sinn Fein but also as Chair of the Health Committee, but nothing has excited me more than bringing Bolster here – and we’ve worked alongside Bolster for a long time, when they were previously Space, and I probably use Bolster as an example for everything that I do, every time I meet with a statutory body, any health meetings – Bolster is an example that I think are leaders in terms of the work that they do… when they see a gap, when they see a need in our community, they work to meet that need – and what we are seeing and launching here today in terms of Autism Connect sums that up.”

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