For 3 years, I was a service user of a social group for young people on the autism spectrum aged 9-18 run by the Visiting Teacher & Support Service (VTSS) and funded by the City of Edinburgh Council. I don’t believe that it had one set title but it was referred to at different times by the names “ASD Youth Club”, “ASC Youth Club”, “Wednesday Night Group” and “The Klub”. It was held every Wednesday evening at Westwood House, an office block in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh. It had been running for many years when I first discovered it.
At a time when I was suffering from the daily experience of bullying and isolation at secondary school, the group provided a welcome refuge from the judgement and hostility that had come to dominate my life. It was a relatively small group which usually had a very laid-back, peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. Most attendees were Aspies, though there were people from various parts of the spectrum with differing levels of vulnerability. Some of the VTSS staff members who facilitated the group could be a little patronising, but they didn’t interfere enough to negatively impact my time there. From 2010 through 2012, it provided a place where I felt safe and accepted – something I needed desperately as someone dealing with severe depression and a host of other trauma-induced mental health problems.
Then, in late 2012 it was announced that the City of Edinburgh Council wouldn’t be renewing its lease on Westwood House, and that the group would have to relocate at the beginning of 2013. Without much consultation, VTSS decided that the new venue would be a room at Edinburgh’s Drumbrae Library Hub – somewhere significantly more difficult for many to get to via public transport. I wasn’t particularly happy about having to move, but nothing could have prepared me for the trouble that lay ahead.
The group’s meeting time was rescheduled to Monday evenings at the Drumbrae Library Hub. Why Monday? Because every Monday was a dedicated night full of activities for the local gangs and cliques of neurotypical teenagers, and – if I’m not mistaken – the library refused to give us access to its video gaming equipment on any other day of the week. This would always have been a horrendous idea, but it was made even worse by the fact that this library was a mere ten minutes away from my school, the place that brought me to the point of suicidal ideation, meaning that the very people who tormented me on a daily basis were now just metres away from what was supposed to be a safe haven.
Still, I thought that once we got through the main section of the library and into the room itself, everything would be okay. I was wrong. The dull box room was less than half the size of our previous venue, it was often left so messy and disorganised by the previous users that it was scarcely usable and worst of all, it featured ceiling-high windows on two sides with no functioning curtains or blinds. We were effectively in a goldfish bowl surrounded by predators, and within a few weeks my worst fears were realised. The room was surrounded by track-suited thugs, many of whom I was familiar with, banging on the windows, throwing things, yelling my name, screaming profanities, etc. The library’s security guard eventually removed them from the area, but this happened on more than one occasion. What was the response from the VTSS staff members who were supposed to be facilitating the group? A passive and dismissive whimper of “just ignore them”. Not long after these incidents, my father spoke to a higher-ranking staff member about how much of a problem the room’s broken blinds posed, yet her response was shockingly noncommittal, as though she couldn’t even comprehend why this was such a big deal. The blinds were eventually repaired, but this took significantly longer than it should have and even afterwards, there were still some instances of harassment within the building itself.
As if it weren’t bad enough already, people’s difficulty in reaching the new venue became such a huge issue that the vast majority of the people who formed the original group stopped attending – some instantly, some gradually. The average number of people in attendance dwindled from more than ten down to as little as four or even two. There were a couple of instances where I was the only person to show up. Did the VTSS staff care that they were witnessing the complete and utter disintegration of one of the city’s only social resources for young autistic? Not at all. If anything, I think they were pleased that it gave them the opportunity to sit around chatting to each other and staring at their smartphones instead of acting in any truly supportive capacity. It had become a charade by this point; an excuse for these people to collect their generous pay packets while effectively doing nothing.
So, I’d come to understand that the VTSS staff were self-centred and uncaring, but what I’d seen thus far was nothing compared with the shocking lack of compassion they were about to display. An acquaintance of mine, one of the few remaining members of the original group, began to break down over what had been done to it, tearfully lamenting the fact that his only group of friends and his only refuge from daily bullying had been snatched away from him. The two staff members’ response? To roll their eyes and smirk at each other, then to jokingly remark at the end of the group’s meeting “[NAME] is in a bit of a mood tonight”. The total absence of empathy displayed by these two “trained professionals” was beyond belief, and made even more disturbing by the fact that one of them was the mother of an autistic girl who sometimes attended the group.
This situation continued for several months in spite of the plummeting attendance, the apathy and sadness amongst those who remained, and the fact that most remaining members and their families had long been campaigning against the use of such a fundamentally unsuitable venue, while the staff exhibited a total lack of care throughout. The search for a new venue only began once my father contacted the group’s co-founder, an educational psychologist who hadn’t been seen at the group since 2012, supposedly because the venue was also too difficult for him to travel to. I’m certain that without his intervention, no search would have occurred at all.
Good news arrived in August 2013 when the group’s co-founder announced that the group would be moved to a new venue, the Panmure St. Ann’s Centre in Edinburgh. In a more accessible location, the room we were allocated gave us the peace, quiet and privacy we needed. Another positive change was the welcome absence of the toxic VTSS staff. Instead, the group was being managed by the co-founder and a young woman from Panmure St. Ann’s (who I believe was a social worker) stayed behind after work to volunteer with the group. She was by far the most friendly and compassionate person to have worked with the group, always trying to engage people, ensuring that everyone was okay, and even offering private support and relaxation tips to someone traumatised by the immense cruelty he’d suffered at school.
While these changes were most welcome, the attendance numbers were still very low and in the absence of their old friends, two remaining members of the original group who’d given the new venue a chance decided that their time at the group was over and didn’t come back. Unfortunately, the co-founder eventually disappeared again after a few weeks, allowing the VTSS staff (including the women who were visibly amused by a boy’s distress at the last venue) to return.
In contrast with the Panmure St Ann’s volunteer, their attitudes were half-hearted and condescending, not engaging with the people around them, speaking in overanimated “baby voices” and attempting to end the group’s meetings at as early a time as they could get away with. One evening, two of them took a noticeably snobbish and exclusionary attitude towards our volunteer, largely ignoring her, not including her in conversation and quickly dismissing the things she said. Towards the end of the evening, they said to her something along the lines of “we can take care of this, you’ll have to give yourself a break” in an overanimated manner, looking at her very expectantly; I can spot passive aggression quite easily, and that’s most certainly what was going on there. I imagine that the experience of sitting in a corner wittering on in self-aggrandising business jargon was made quite a bit less comfortable by having to watch a kind-hearted, unpaid volunteer doing their job for them.
I stopped attending as of January 2014 due to my rapidly deteriorating mental health, although I’d probably have given up on it with or without these other personal issues.
I don’t know if the club still exists. It may still be here, providing a sense of comfort and belonging to an entirely new group of people, but the fact remains that the group I was introduced to back in 2010 is gone, not because its members simply moved on but because it was preventably torn apart by the ill-considered decisions of staff members totally unconcerned with the wellbeing of the vulnerable people they purport to serve.
I hope that my story will help to highlight the fragility of young people’s services and deter things like this from happening in the future.