Autistic individuals are reaping the benefits of access to new services thanks to the determination of Teesside charity, Daisy Chain, in fighting the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and wellbeing.

While autism is not a mental health condition, around 80% of autistic young people have experienced mental health problems and Coronavirus has made this situation considerably worse. Research from the National Autistic Society found that 9 in 10 autistic people worried about their mental health during lockdown and 85% said their anxiety levels worsened due to fear of the virus and becoming overwhelmed by rapidly changing and unclear advice.

Hayley Matthews, head of adult services at Daisy Chain, said: “We recognised the significant detrimental impact that lockdown and subsequent changes to restrictions were having on the mental health of autistic young people and adults. We knew that, unless we acted, we faced a potential tsunami of crisis cases, so it was imperative that we worked proactively to stop this, and start to turn the tide.

“The benefits of physical activity and being outdoors are widely acknowledged so this, coupled with Coronavirus advice that being outdoors is safer, led us to develop a range of services which are mitigating the effects of the pandemic on our service users’ wellbeing while allowing young people and adults to feel safe exploring and engaging in a natural environment.”

Three new services have been launched by Daisy Chain, and initial results show that participants are benefitting from access to the sessions which enable them to gain valuable skills and work experience while connecting with others and reducing loneliness and isolation, all in a safe, supportive environment.

“Social distancing and a fear of catching the virus has led to many individuals becoming isolated and anxious about being around other people. 92% of surveyed participants have said that, thanks to the outdoor clubs, they now feel more confident around other people while 88% said the clubs have helped them have more confidence in their own strengths and abilities,” said Hayley.

The outdoor clubs, based at Daisy Chain’s centre in Norton, include:

  • The Eco Academy, a gardening and enterprise group for autistic adults, is free to access. It runs weekly and utilises Daisy Chain’s three large polytunnels and thriving allotments. Autistic adults are supported to develop their gardening skills, connect with others, and build their confidence whilst making a valuable contribution to Daisy Chain’s social enterprise through the cultivation and sale of fruit, vegetables, and flowers.
  • The Barn Buddies club which offers children and young people the chance to explore farm animals through activities and crafts while building friendships and confidence.
  • Forest School sessions which allow young people to develop their practical skills through physical activity and movement with activities including den building and bush crafts.

As well as offering the opportunity to develop new skills, connect with others and reduce loneliness and isolation, this enhanced outdoor provision has played an important part in nurturing the mental health of participants with 96% of attendees saying in a recent survey that the outdoor clubs have made them feel calmer and more relaxed.

Hayley said: “The feedback we have received from the service users and volunteers involved in our outdoor service provision is fantastic. We established the outdoor clubs to offer fun and sociable activities for autistic children, young people and adults, while helping them to gain valuable work experience and skills.

“Gardening, and being outdoors, has many proven mental health benefits and we are delighted that these clubs have been made possible thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.”

The Daisy Chain Eco Academy, Barn Buddies club and Forest School sessions are open to children, young people and adults with a diagnosis of autism. For further information, or to register your place, please contact info@daisychainproject.co.uk or call 01642 531248.