A toddlers group for children with special needs has been set up by Louise Wood who is drawing on her own journey as a mum of a child with autism to help other parents.

Louise (pictured), who is a Major with husband Colin at the Salvation Army Centre in Thornton Heath High Street,  is running the toddlers group every Tuesday  between 10am to 12 during school term time  but if there is demand will extend the sessions  to school holidays. 

The group provides a ‘safe environment’ for children to play while parents can socialise with other mum’s and dad’s experiencing the same difficulties and get support.

Louise, says she has always been passionate about special needs and from the age of 16 did work experience with adults with special needs at Orchard Hill at Queen Mary’s Hospital before completing a degree in health and social sciences. 

She intended to pursue a career working in special needs care  before her path changed and she became an officer in the Salvation Army.

Louise is able to draw on the couple’s own son Caleb, now 13,  who was flagged by a teacher as having autism when he started school.

She said: “It’s tough being a new parent let alone a parent of a child with additional needs. 

“It helps to share. Sometimes you can be in the midst of something where you think you are the only person that’s ever in the midst of it but suddenly someone else says they are having that same difficulty and it helps if you are struggling to have someone to talk to. “

Now she wants help other parents navigating similar  experiences and hit upon the idea of the  toddlers group  after  meeting with Best Start coordinator Melissa Cameron, who runs a  support programme of services for families with children under five. The pair  identified there was little to no provision for children under 5 with special needs locally.

Louise is non judgemental and sees the toddlers group as acting as a  ‘signpost’  to other services for parents of special needs children.

She said: “I just worry about families now with special needs kids. We are in good place with Caleb but saying that we had  to fight for Caleb to be in school.”

Caleb, has high functioning autism and  is now in a specialist supported unit but Louise explains that  it was a ‘long journey’ for the family but it is paying off and  Caleb is now enjoying school and showing amazing artistic ability with an interest in graphic design.

Louise added: “We as a family got a lot of support but it is getting harder and harder to get support these days as money is running out and some kids don’t get diagnosed for well over a year. Trying to get in schools is a fight and just to get basic provision it’s horrendous and just so stressful. It shouldn’t be so stressful for parents of children with disabilities.“