Parents of autistic children in Bristol set to be charged for school holiday service

The council says new fees are needed to help the service cater for increasing demand
The project offers a free short-break holiday activity service for autistic children and young peopleThe project offers a free short-break holiday activity service for autistic children and young people
The project offers a free short-break holiday activity service for autistic children and young people

Parents and carers of autistic children and young people in Bristol are set to be charged for a school holiday service. The Bristol Autism Project has been free since it was introduced but now parents will be asked to pay a membership fee of £39 a year.

The project, run by the Foundation for Active Community Engagement and commissioned by Bristol City Council, offers a free short-break holiday activity service for autistic children and young people. Its growing membership includes 631 autistic children from 554 families.

The council says the new fees are needed to help the service cater for increasing demand, and anybody who struggles to pay could be exempt. But one parent raised concerns about the plans during a meeting of the people scrutiny commission on September 27.

Jen Smith said: “This month BAP has announced that short breaks can only be accessed through a paid membership scheme. I think it’s wrong that such an essential council service now has to be paid for.

“It’s really draining to be poor in Bristol and be a disabled family, and have to justify both these aspects of your existence. Many low-income families won’t admit to finding this charge a further burden. They’ll say nothing and miss out yet again.

“There’s over 100 autistic children and young people in Bristol currently missing education, contributing to anxiety. Many are probably missing out on their free school meals because of it, and now their accessible holiday activities have been snatched away as well. This is a back-door cut. What the council has done here is to yet again alienate and isolate its autistic population in Bristol. It does it all the time, but this is a particularly low blow.”

The Bristol Autism Project provides activities every school holiday, Monday to Friday, throughout the year. Families can choose from sessions such as swimming, clip and climb, forestry, sensory sessions, autism-friendly cinema and adventure playgrounds.

Labour Councillor Kerry Bailes, representing Hartcliffe and Withywood, added: “It’s not going to be affordable for that many families. We’re going to be asked to pay more council tax, we’re going to be asked to pay for membership fees. Families just aren’t going to access services.”

However, any families who struggle to afford the new £39 annual membership fee could be exempt from paying, according to Reena Bhogal-Welsh, director of education and skills.

She said: “For any families that are unable to afford it, we would try to engage with those families. That membership cost wouldn’t be given to them or demanded from them. Of course we’ll work with those families, we want them to be able to engage with the services. If they are unable to pay for it, they will not be asked to pay for it.”