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The National Autistic Society has 116 volunteer-led branches from across the UK. They do wonderful things and support approximately 20,000 people a year, while 75% of the UK live within 20 miles of one of our branches. They help to prevent isolation through drop-in sessions, support groups and social events, as well as campaigning and fundraising to create a world that works for autistic people.

This week, Jane Harris, our Director of External Affairs and Social Change, visited our Newtownards branch in Northern Ireland, to award them as our Branch of the Year.

Here, she explains why they are so deserving of their title:

  1. They make people smile.
  2. I have just spent 2 hours with an almost constant smile on my face. Around me were countless children, who were also beaming, jumping on trampolines, talking to farm animals and playing with their friends.

    All this smiling was due to the efforts of our volunteers from our Newtownards branch. Founded in 2008 by Shirelle Stewart, who is now our National Director in Northern Ireland, it helps hundreds of children on the autism spectrum to have experiences that other children take for granted. From trampolining and swimming to days out at Dublin zoo, they help autistic children to get out and enjoy themselves.

  3. They stop social isolation.
  4. So many people I spoke to today told me that without the activities the branch provide, they wouldn’t have left the house much during the school holidays. “I’d be nervous coming here alone with my son”, one mother told me. Her son was safe and could play with other children in an environment where everyone understands autism.

    79% of autistic people feel socially isolated, which is shocking. However, Newtownards branch, like all of our branches, is slowly fighting to create communities that include autistic people.

  5. They think about whole families.
  6. As well as activities for kids after school, at weekends and in holidays, the volunteers have organised a siblings group. The brothers and sisters of autistic kids - or any child with a disability - can sometimes feel overlooked when a family’s attention is understandably often on their sibling.

    But here there are activities especially for them. And there are nights out for parents - both mums and dads - so that they have a space to discuss their experiences, such as fighting for a diagnosis for their child, getting the right school place and how to cope when your friends who don’t understand autism can’t understand your life any more.

  7. They never stop.
  8. Despite the huge range of social opportunities the branch provides, the volunteers are always wanting to do more. They have a group for teenagers - today they were discussing how they could do more for adults. They have an annual overnight trip to the seaside - now they’re thinking about going further afield. The ambition is endless. It’s inspiring how they want to transform the lives of autistic people in their community.

  9. They have raised huge sums to help more people.
  10. All of our branches rely on donations from the community to carry out the amazing work that they do. From collecting at local supermarkets to being chosen as the Mayor’s charity of the year, they are determined to bring in funds to do more. They make sure it’s well spent and they are transparent about where the money is going: to increase the opportunities available to hundreds of children and teenagers in Newtownards.

Thank you to their amazing committee of Stacey, Trudi, Helen, Christine, Naomi and Susan. You are a real inspiration. We are really proud that you are part of the National Autistic Society.

If you would like to find out more about your local branch or how to start a branch in your area, you can find out more on our website.

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