Mel Spencer, ex-police officer, mum and now Executive Officer of Different Journeys. With her team they are creating a ‘village of people’ to support autistic individuals and their carers.
A force for good
Mel Spencer’s passion for advocacy and change was born from great personal difficulties. In the midst of her own journey with PTSD, and her son’s autism diagnosis, came her motivation to connect with the wider world. Whilst specialists gave her gloom-ridden data regarding education and employment prospects for autistic people, Mel says, “I didn’t want those statistics to define the opportunities for my children”. As a police officer, Mel was adept at investigating things further and the role also instilled in her an attitude to never give up. These characteristics encouraged her to put her thoughts into action.
After hearing what wasn’t possible for autistic individuals, Mel wanted to think about what was possible. While there was plenty of support for early intervention of autism, she found that this lessened dramatically once these children got closer to teenage and adulthood. Mel knew first hand how having good support around you and ‘a village of people’ could make a difference. In her role as a carer, she had experienced this herself. She began Different Journeys with another mum of autistic children, Merrin Ayton, to replicate their experience and help others in similar situations.
Someone in your corner
Mel says, “We all need to know there’s someone in our corner. People who can laugh and cry with you. People who ‘get it’”. These women knew how isolating life could be for autistic teens and their carers. Their flagship event was an Autistic Teen Peer Support Group in February of 2016 to start creating a community. The event was such a success, that they ran more. Over the years they have expanded and evolved Different Journeys accordingly. Their aim: “to empower our Autistic community with the skills and knowledge [required] by creating real events in a safe and supported environment”.
Vulnerabilities of autistic people and their carers
Autistic people and their families are generally vulnerable to more hardships than the average neurotypical family. The suicide rate is higher for those with autism; an added worry for their carers, who are already feeling the stress of their role. Autistic people are also more likely to identify as LGBTQI, which can be further isolating for them in the wider community. Different Journeys has employed an LQBTQI mentor to assist their members who require extra support in this area. Add to this that carers of autistic people experience stress comparable to combat soldiers, and you can understand how unrelenting their role is, and the need for strong support. Different Journeys offers one to one peer support, and also assists in pointing carers towards existing services. The organisation also ‘walks the walk’ and employs autisitic people and carers from their community.
Time to enjoy life
Carers are often so overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis. They never have time just to relax and enjoy family life. Different Journeys allows space for families to come together and have fun in a safe and supportive environment. The groups and events organised by Different Journeys are created in consultation with the autistic community to meet their needs, and no doubt that is a massive part of their success.
To read more about Different Journeys, head to their website at: www.differentjourneysautism.com