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Mockingbird creates supportive social environment

Sophia Mudgway and her mentor Shania Whale. Supplied images.

Imagine living in a world where you feel isolated; people don’t always understand you, it can be difficult to focus, and at times everything can seem overwhelming.

Living with neurodiversity can be a daily struggle. For teenager Sophia Mudgway, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it was affecting her schooling and socialising was difficult.  

“It seemed like there was no hope or light at the end of the tunnel,” says Sophia’s mother, Nicola.

Now, the 13-year-old is happier, more relaxed, and Nicola says she can truly see the real Sophia.

Sophia has come out of her shell thanks to Mockingbird; a programme that provides a safe and supportive social environment for neurodiverse children and youth who live with disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s.

 “After we first started, Sophia’s words to me were ‘They don’t judge me here Mum’—it was such a relief,” says Nicola.

 “Having a child with ASD can be very alienating and lonely; you often feel judged because you aren’t disciplining or for some other reason. The families at Mockingbird get what we are going through; they have been where we are now, and that really helps me because they have obviously come a long way and that gives me hope everything is going to be ok. I am truly grateful to have been welcomed into the Mockingbird family.”

Sophia is one of over 60 neurodiverse children and youth who attend Mockingbird.

Being mostly invisible disabilities, many of these youth struggle in the mainstream environment. Children are often home-schooled due to their specific learning and health requirements, and in turn, can experience social isolation and lack of confidence around other people. 

Mockingbird facilitates families coming together regularly, allowing children to interact and naturally build healthy relationships through activities like excursions, baking, art, technology, science and drama.

While families often come from a place where they have felt misunderstood, judged, and isolated, Mockingbird provides a safe and nurturing environment where they feel a sense of belonging, working alongside a behaviour consultant, who offers advice and support.

The individual growth and successes of the children is quite remarkable – from children who couldn’t set foot in a school environment, now confident and keen to attend on a part-time basis, to children who can now be taken into public settings without risk of triggers that cause significant anxiety attacks.  Most of the young people are showing levels of self-control, confidence and independence the families never expected possible.

Zoom sessions have been helping Mockingbird families stay connected during lockdown.

Mockingbird operations manager Robyn McLeod says that their safe, judgement-free environment allows children and youth to thrive by simply being themselves.

“There is no judgment at Mockingbird. Kids can meet other kids like them and learn they aren’t alone; they have a tribe. It is a home away from home where they can truly flourish.”

And it’s a valuable source of support for parents too.

“A lot of families when they first arrive are in survival mode. They are completely overwhelmed and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. At Mockingbird they realise they are no longer on this journey alone; suddenly they’ve got people to bounce ideas off, no-one is judging their child’s behaviour, and they have the reassurance that everything is going to be ok. It allows a family to heal.”

Mockingbird’s Behaviour Consultant, Ross Barker, offers consultations with families, manages the social dynamics and is a listening ear when kids need someone to talk to. While Ross is warmly referred to as the grandfather in the Mockingbird family, three young adult mentors fill the gap as older brothers and sisters.

Whether helping with homework, taking the kids on outings, or offering advice with ongoing issues, the mentors provide support, encouragement and friendship to Mockingbird kids, who range in age from 5 to 18.

TECT funding for operating costs was sought to support Mockingbird in delivering and expanding its services.

With TECT funding of $25,000 approved this year, Mockingbird can further increase Ross’ hours, contract the three mentors to work alongside Ross, continue with current contractors such as a Coordinator and Performing Arts tutor, expand their peer mentor programme and cover rent.

Robyn says TECT’s support over the years has been invaluable to running the programme.

“We are really grateful to have received funding from TECT for the three years that we’ve applied; it has given us the security that any household would need to run.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower. Thanks to TECT and other funders support, we can provide an environment where these children can grow.”

Robyn notes that Mockingbird is now running at full capacity and is looking for larger premises.

“Our biggest struggle is the size of the premises we work out of. We run the programme out of Lighthouse Church in Welcome Bay, but with over 50 children, we can’t fit many more in. We are on the lookout for something larger so we can help as many families as possible. If anyone knows of any spaces, we’d love for them to get in touch.”

While this longer-term struggle is still in sight for when the country comes out of lockdown, the group are currently focusing on keeping the children engaged remotely.

With Zoom meetings being run by two of their mentors every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with activities like charades, dance parties and baking, the group has adapted to ensure the children are connected and thriving in their bubbles.

Mockingbird has also been continuing to provide kai parcels for their vulnerable families with the help of Good Neighbour, and Behaviour Consultant Ross has been helping with the high anxieties around lockdown with telephone and Zoom consultations.

Weekly catch-ups at the Aunties tables have also been moved to Zoom – ensuring families can reach out for support and reassurance.

To learn more about Mockingbird, visit https://mockingbird.org.nz

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