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The A Team Youth Club

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Introduction

The A Team Youth Club is a specialist youth club in Blackpool aimed at 12-25 year olds at the higher end of the autism spectrum. It is a joint project run by the Complex and Severe Learning Difficulties Team and the Youth Service in Blackpool. There are currently 25 members of The A Team and four members of staff plus a number of volunteers.

The club meets at Blackpool Boys’ and Girls’ youth club on alternate Tuesday evenings from 6.30-8.30pm, unless there is a group outing when the session may be longer. It offers a range of activities including sports, crafts and hobby nights, trips to the cinema and an annual weekend away. As such, the club doesn’t meet the needs of every child with autism, but it does cater for a broad range of young people on the autism spectrum.

This case study outlines how The A Team started and now operates, the service that it offers its members, and the value of this to them. Communication and planning resources are also available to download.

The A Team Youth Club was set up in 2000. The initial aim was to fill a gap for young people with Asperger syndrome, for whom there was very little provision in Blackpool at the time. Jacqui Ghigi - Co-ordinator for the Complex and Severe Learning Difficulties Team at Blackpool Local Authority, a colleague who was a family support worker, and the parent of a child with Asperger syndrome, discussed how best they could fill this gap and started a social club using a room care of Autism Initiatives. Jacqui was studying for a master’s in autism at the time and the social club developed into a youth club as part of her action research project. Blackpool Youth Service offered a room and a youth worker to help run the youth club, and later a minibus for excursions.

The A Team ran once a month and was aimed at those young people who had unsuccessfully attended mainstream youth clubs and who had perhaps been left feeling even more isolated than they had before. The club was designed to give these young people an opportunity to get together with their peers in a setting where they would feel comfortable and wouldn’t be ostracised for being different. It was also an opportunity for parents and carers to gain a valuable break, and to ask staff for advice on any issues relating to their child. There was such high demand from the members and their parents for more frequent sessions that in 2005 The A Team began to meet fortnightly.

There was some initial difficulty in winning over certain professionals who didn’t understand why ordinary youth clubs weren’t working for these young people, and who suggested that a specialist club was a form of exclusion rather than inclusion. It was crucial therefore to help these people understand that The A Team was about creating a positive experience for a group of young people who might not otherwise have one.

The A Team receives referrals from agencies and local authority departments across Blackpool, with many coming from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and the Youth Service. Referrals come direct to Jacqui Ghigi who then liaises with the young person’s school, local authority and parents to ensure that The A Team is a suitable place for the young person and that they are suitable for the group. The only set criteria for each referral is that they must be on the autism spectrum and as far as possible have a formal diagnosis.

DOWNLOAD: The A Team Youth Club Invitation letter to parent

It continues to be important for stakeholders to understand what the group is about and whom it is aimed at to ensure that the right referrals are received and the group carries on working. Members are young people who have often been damaged by experiences they’ve had in the past and it’s vital that they are made to feel safe when they come to The A Team. The Local Authority produces a newsletter that is distributed throughout Blackpool to help communicate with stakeholders and report on the club’s activities and successes. 

DOWNLOAD: The A Team Youth Club Newsletter

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The A Team Youth Club currently has about 25 members on its register, most of who are on the higher end of the autism spectrum. Named by its members, the club offers a wide variety of activities, all of which are chosen democratically by the young people who attend. Some activities are less popular than others, such as the cinema, so there are usually around 20 young people who attend. Four staff members run each session and within the current group five of the young people also have PIP (Playwork Inclusion Project) workers who attend with them.

“The A Team is about having fun and making friends, learning to be with other people and how to negotiate and compromise.” Jacqui Ghigi, Co-ordinator for the Complex and Severe Learning Difficulties Team, Blackpool Local Authority.

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A typical session at The A Team will start with Circle Time. Staff take time to explain what activities will be on offer that evening, any club news is communicated, and members have the opportunity to share experiences that they’ve had since the last session. If the group is having a night out, they still meet at the youth club for a briefing so that everyone is prepared for what is happening that evening.

For each session held at the youth club, there are usually a number of activities on offer.  There is a large gymnasium so sports nights are popular. Archery, table tennis, snooker, or other indoor sports might be available with an external instructor, and the group have even had a circus skills teacher in for the evening. There is also a craft room for art and craft activities, another favourite. This is also the quiet room where members can go to read books and magazines or do puzzles. It is really important to have a selection of activities available as not all young people have the same interests.

The A Team also hosts hobby nights, when members can bring in their own hobby to share with the rest of the group. This might be a computer game, a jigsaw, cookery, Snakes and Ladders – anything that they are interested in doing in their spare time. On these nights the youth club’s computers are also accessible - usually it’s a golden rule that they’re not so as to encourage social interaction.

The A Team Programme of Events 2010 - 2011

The youth centre has a small café for members to purchase drinks and snacks, and if there is a birthday party or themed celebration, it aims to provide food that fits in with the night’s theme.

In addition to running fortnightly sessions for the club members, staff also offer their parents and carers support. There is a Friday afternoon helpline that they can call for information, advice and support, and if available staff are always happy to talk on a more informal level at the club sessions.

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The A team Youth Club clearly demonstrates the boost in confidence that a young person on the autism spectrum can receive in the right environment. When the club first started out, and indeed for some new members to the group, initial interaction was/is minimal, with each young person carrying out their own individual activity. Some members wouldn’t/won’t even enter the room for Circle Time at the beginning of a session. One young person spent his first four sessions under the snooker table, but as he became more comfortable and confident, his involvement and interaction also grew. This culminated in the celebration of his 18th birthday at the youth club, for which he brought a cake in for everyone to share.

“Some of the young people start out hiding in the club, but over the weeks they gradually start to join in with the activities more and participate in the circle time. They open up and learn to be able to express themselves, and all of them are now more confident when they are out and about.” A team staff member.

Through observation and parental reports, it is evident that the young people who attend The A Team not only grow in confidence but also form meaningful friendships. This doesn’t necessarily then transfer to other settings, but at the club these young people are able to have successful peer relationships, which they may not have experienced in any other environment outside of their homes. Many members maintain these relationships in between club meetings by phone and email. A large proportion of The A Team don’t have friends at school or college, but at the club, they do.

The club has also occasionally offered ‘reverse inclusion’ opportunities, when members are able to bring a friend or sibling to a session. These have been very successful and the other young people have really enjoyed welcoming them to the group for the evening.

The group dynamics that allow these friendships to develop and members’ confidence to grow are delicate and need to be carefully balanced. For example, the club received a referral of a young person who was not on the autism spectrum but who had emotional and behavioural difficulties. Unfortunately, this was not only very difficult for the other members to cope with, but also for the individual who had been referred. Careful consideration needs to be given to referrals to the group to make sure that the balance is not upset and that it is successful for everyone involved.

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Appleby Weekend Away

In 2009 The A Team Youth Club secured funding for an activity weekend in Appleby – its first weekend away. Funding was received through a piece of research for the Children’s Workforce Development Council, which not only funded the trip but also the making of a film about the weekend. The initial idea for the weekend came from the members, and although not all of them wanted to go, for many of those who did, it was their first time away from home. This also gave their parents and carers an important break. Ten members of the youth club went to Appleby accompanied by five members of staff and an outdoor pursuits leader.

A significant amount of preparation was required around food, sleeping and sleeping arrangements, toileting, and medical arrangements to make the weekend a success. The outward bound instructors also played a key role. They focused the weekend around team building games and other activities that centred on relying on other people, asking questions and lots of social interaction. This was not only fun for the group, but also gave them the opportunity to practice skills that don’t necessarily come naturally to them.

“It was brilliant – we had the time of the century.”  The A Team Youth Club member

At the end of the weekend a Big Brother style diary room was provided for the group to talk about their experiences. Highlights included ‘having fun at night’ and ‘sleeping in a room with other people’, things that most teenagers take for granted. For The A Team however, these were experiences that many of them had never had before. It was clear that they had not only had a great time, but had gained a considerable amount from it, and were keen for a repeat trip away.

“Everyone did so well. We had done a lot of preparation, but I was still worried that there would be problems – that someone would want to go home, or would really struggle with being there. But that didn’t happen at all. The young people were really challenged by the outdoor pursuit workers and they were incredibly enthusiastic in taking this up. Being part of the club enabled them to extend their comfort zones considerably and effectively support each other in unfamiliar situations.” Jacqui Ghigi, Co-ordinator for the Complex and Severe Learning Difficulties Team, Blackpool Local Authority.

The A Team Youth Club also secured funding from Blackpool’s Aiming High for Disabled Children programme for a second trip in 2010 to Lakeside activity centre in Coniston.

DOWNLOADS: Appleby Weekend planning tools

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Everyone involved in the A Team Youth Club – staff, parents, and young people - would like the sessions to be held weekly, but there is currently not enough youth work staff and volunteer time available to make this happen. It is also felt that the group would benefit from having outreach support from the mainstream Youth Service so that where possible the young people could move into or also attend a mainstream youth club if or when they were ready. This is something that will very much depend on funding decisions made by the government this year.

The A Team is primarily funded by the Blackpool Youth Service, which has provided a youth worker and a minibus for trips out. However, funding also comes from other sources. Blackpool’s Children’s Youth Council has given funding to the club so that what is currently on offer can be extended, and the Blackpool Aiming High for Disabled Children programme partially funded the club’s 2010 weekend away following a presentation by some of the club members using the film of the 2009 Appleby weekend to support their case.

The A Team’s partnerships have been key to its success. Jacqui Ghigi has provided a large amount of training for the Youth Service, but has also learnt a lot from them about listening to and involving young people, planning with young people, and then evaluating achievements. These are all techniques that she has carried over into The A Team to make it so successful. She has also provided continuity. Parents move on as their children grow up and a group like The A Team needs to have one person who can drive it forward and keep checking that the standards and goals set are being met.

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For more information about the A Team Youth Club, please contact:

Contact  Jacqui Ghigi
Job title  Co-ordinator, Complex and Severe Learning Difficulties Team, Blackpool Local Authority
Address  Children and Yong People’s Department, PSC Service, Progress House, Clifton Road, Blackpool, FY4 4US
Telephone  01253 476642
Email  Jacqui.ghigi@blackpool.gov.uk

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