We spoke to her about what she does and what she enjoys about the role.
Hi Alexandra. So, what is Portage?
Alexandra: Portage is a service that helps pre-school children who have learning disabilities with education and play.
Portage is for the whole family. I teach parents how to support their children. After 6 months, they should be able to take the leading role. Although, if they need my support for longer then I’m happy to help. The aim is for parents to be able to do with their children what I do with them during our sessions and continue beyond the sessions.
Find out more about Portage in our blog by clicking this link.
Have you always been interested in supporting children who have learning disabilities and autism?
Alexandra: I’ve always been very keen on working with children and especially with children who are different. I don’t see them as children with a problem or a disability, I see them as children with the potential to live a fulfilling life, if they get the right support.
Early identification is very important, and this is what I do. All the children I support have special talents, but for some reason people focus on their weaknesses. Which we all have. I try to throw light on their strengths and help them with their weaknesses.
My interest though is not just supporting children, but the whole family, focusing on communication and a meaningful, healthy relationship between parents and children.
Why is your job important?
I think this is a very good question to ask the families I support, not me…But I think the biggest problem is many families feel that something is wrong with their child, and they don’t know what to do. They find it hard, for so many different reasons, to tell someone about it or to trust someone and share sensitive information about their family. The first and most important thing for me is to gain their trust and build a relationship.
Parents often need support both for themselves and for their child to reach their full potential. They often also need to know where they can get more help if they need it. I often signpost them to other services. They might need to visit a paedtrician and have their child assessed, so that we know if there is a diagnosis. Based on that, their child can have further support from an educational psychologist, an occupational therapist, speech and language therapist, or a physiotherapist, if they have a physical disability as well.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I will start with the hardest part, which is when I visit a family week after week and the family say they can’t see any change and that there is no progress. Often, parents believe that nothing works for their child.
Then, after a few sessions, I do a home visit and they say, “you can’t imagine what he/she did!!” Their child has done something new for the first time! I feel so grateful every single time that I have been able to help. They feel that finally there is hope and that something has changed for the better. So that is my favourite part of the job!
Do you have an example of when that has happened?
With many families. I supported a mum, who has three children, two of them with autism. At first, she couldn’t accept the diagnosis. She was trying to find a reason why this had happened to her. It was like her world had ended.
After we started working together, and she saw some progress, she started a course to become a teacher for children with autism. So, you can imagine how I felt…!
She went from feeling lost and hopeless and that there was nothing she could do to support her children, to seeing a big change and believing that she could support her children herself. And, not just her children, but that she could help other children too. She is not from England, and she had to take English classes too. But it did not discourage her from keeping going and achieving her goal. It was amazing!
How else do you support families?
I support families in many ways. I’ve studied psychology and counselling, and I have also attended a course in Positive Psychology. I am a Trainee Counsellor and I use counselling skills and relevant knowledge (i.e. some cognitive behavioural therapy exercises) to support parents with their own difficulties, which prevent them from feeling confident enough to put in place Portage strategies.
Sometimes parents feel they don’t have the time, or they have so many negative feelings that they can’t work on what I teach them. They can’t find the energy to do it.
Given that 50 per cent of the work is what I do during a home visit and the other 50 per cent is what parents do with the child the rest of the week, a lot of the work is up to them.
So, I help parents to challenge their negative feelings or pessimism, so that not only the child, but also the whole family is well supported to see positive changes in their everyday life.
LDN’s Early Help and Portage service has expanded its offer to free workshops on various topics (communication, challenging behaviour, positive parenting), as well as the delivery of Early Bird Training, accredited by National Autistic Society (NAS).
LDN is also planning to run parents groups, to give parents the opportunity to meet other families with similar concerns and difficulties. The aim is to create a safe place for them to share thoughts and feel supported in their everyday lives.