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Paper figures of people on a light background, place for text. World autism day concept

As a mum of three who works full-time, it’s fair to say that Anna-Marie Colton has little spare time on her hands.

However, what downtime she does have is now likely to be taken up fulfilling her role as chair of the National Autistic Society’s Dungannon and District Branch.

Anna-Marie, who lives in Aughnacloy, has taken on the mantle as a way of giving back to a voluntary organisation which has offered her so much support over the years.

“My son, Cahir, who is 14, has autism and I have been involved with the National Autistic Society since his diagnosis,” explains 53-year-old Anna-Marie.

“I knew a little bit about autism before he was born but not much and I don’t think I really noticed anything in the early days. He was a wee bit slower with meeting his milestones, his speech was a bit slower and his walking, but I wasn’t too worried.

“All children are different, they all develop at different rates, and I just put it down to Cahir being a boy.”

However, the signs of autism became more apparent when Cahir started playschool, where Anna-Marie says she and staff noticed a difference in the way he interacted with his peers.

“He tended to play on his own and was maybe a bit more withdrawn,” she explains.

“He preferred his own company, I suppose. He wasn’t comfortable interacting with other children at that stage, so it did cross my mind that he may be autistic although I quickly discounted it.”

Once Cahir started at St Joseph’s Primary School in Caledon, however, he was referred for assessment.

Anna-Marie continues: “It’s a wonderful wee school and was fabulous in meeting Cahir’s needs. It can be a very, very convoluted journey getting a diagnosis and the right support, especially when you don’t know the processes, which you don’t tend to if you have never been through it before.

“Cahir’s diagnosis came about as a result of the school. They would have had other children with autism and there would have been educational psychologists coming in and, with it being a small school, they got to know Cahir.

“He was diagnosed when he was five, which is quite young but once you get a diagnosis, you’re a little bit at sea because you don’t know what comes next. You don’t really have anyone telling you what you need to do next.

“You come away with a diagnosis and no idea what to do with it. It was a relief when we got a diagnosis because I think you know yourself, I’d reached the stage where I realised it was more than likely what we were dealing with.”

By good fortune, Anna-Marie came across the National Autistic Society’s Dungannon and District Branch Facebook page at around the time Cahir was diagnosed.

She subsequently attended a group meeting for parents, finding it a wonderful source of information, support and friendship.

“It was daunting going along on the first evening. You go in thinking all these parents have got it together and they know what they’re doing but actually it’s just that they’re a little bit further along the road than you.

“With me, they just put their arms around me and took me under their wing. They told me exactly what I needed to be doing and how to go about it. It was great to have that help and guidance from people who have been through it before.

“Cahir is an exceptional child, he’s very bright and intelligent and I wanted to put the right support in place to make sure he could be the best he can be. We really received a lot of support and information from the Dungannon and District group. Signposting people to services is a big thing.

“The people in the group become friends, you make friends you would never have known under different circumstances. There’s a fabulous community of support out there, if you know where to find it.”

It is that shared experience which is also so important to members of the group. Parents, siblings and children with autism are able to meet and enjoy time together in a non-judgmental environment.

As Anna-Marie explains, it can sometimes be difficult for families to spend time together, particularly if a sibling is presenting with challenging behaviour.

But the group’s premises at Barrack Street in Coalisland is a safe space for everyone. Among the facilities are a games room and sensory studio.

It is in this building that the group holds a range of clubs, including meetings for parents, Teen Zone for children 11 and upwards and Whizz Kids, which is for children of primary school age.

Anna-Marie continues: “We mainly do arts and crafts at Teen Zone because we found that was something a lot of our older members wanted to do, but there is no pressure on them to do anything they don’t want to.

“A lot of our young people have strong opinions about what they would like to see and do themselves. We’re very keen to involve them in what the club does and taking it in the direction they want it to go.

“It’s their club, after all. We’re just facilitating it really. In saying that, it’s great fun and I love being involved in it. I get an awful lot out of it as it’s a great group of young people.

“There are members who have been involved for years, they’ve been here since they were five or six years old and they’re blooming and developing, and coming into themselves, which is such a beautiful thing to see.

“Our children bring so much to our families and I really love my involvement as it’s a fantastic group of young people. I come on the back of two very able and inspiring ladies, Daphney Scott and Aideen Mockford, who did so much over the years and I’m pleased to be able to help in some way.

“I would just say to anyone who thinks their children may have autism or who have just had the diagnosis, to get in touch with our group.

“I know how daunting it can be, but we are here and we want to support you in any way we can.”

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