THE Blaenau Gwent branch of the National Autistic Society (NAS) is holding a number of events this week to celebrate World Autism Awareness Day today.

Founding member and branch officer Nicola Wiliams, 43, from Cwm, and friend Julie Lewis, 41, from Ebbw Vale became friends after both their sons were diagnosed with forms of the disability, and set up the group to support the parents of other autistic children.

Julie’s son Tom, 16, has a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, while Nicola’s son Dylan, 12, has autism.

When the diagnoses were made, both women said they felt alone, unsupported and isolated.

“There was no information, no support. We were basically told ‘here’s the diagnosis, now get on with it’,” said Julie.

“I started going to an NAS support group in Pontypool, just to talk to parents in a similar position over a cup of tea.”

When Nicola’s son was going through diagnoses four years ago, she decided to set up the group.

She said: “I felt so alone, so overwhelmed and had no access to any sort of information or support. I decided I didn’t want other people going through that. I knew Julie had been through the same thing, and it all started from there.”

Julie added: “It can destroy your family if you have no support. You are constantly writing letters, on the phone, crying and pulling your hair out. You don’t know where to turn, and it’s difficult for the child’s siblings as well.”

The group meets the second Wednesday of every month and has more than 40 regular members who come along to talk to other parents, get information and hear from autism experts.

It encourages collaboration and communication between agencies and aims to support parents of children with autism, raise awareness and provide information to ensure children and adults with autism achieve their full potential.

Nicola said: “It’s nice to have a cup of coffee and a chat to someone who knows exactly what you’re talking about, who’ve been through it.

“Our meetings allow members to offer each other advice and support with any particular issues they are facing. Education is often a problem, as is anything to do with health.”

Julie said: “People with autism do not deserve to just exist, but to live and reach their full potential. They have so, so much to offer. By raising awareness we want people to not point and stare or accuse a child of being naughty when they see a child behaving differently, but to stop and think ‘there may be a reason for that’. It can be something as small as too bright lighting to trigger and upset an autistic person.”

On Friday, members of the branch will be giving an Assembly at Ebbw Fawr Learning Community, while pupils at Abertillery Comprehensive are making an awareness video and holding a design an awareness onesie competition.

Also on Friday, Blaenau Gwent AM and patron of the charity branch Alun Davies is holding a coffee morning at Ebbw Vale Institute from 11am-12.30pm to share information and raise money through a raffle.

On Saturday, branch members, along with the AM, will be at Eugene Cross Park, Ebbw Vale, where the team take on Beddau, holding a bucket collection.

On Sunday, NAS members are holding a train walk around Bryn Bach Park, Tredegar, to round off the weekend of events at 3pm, where they will be spreading the word of the charity to members of the public.

The Market Hall Cinema, Brynmawr, is also holding an autism-friendly screening of the new Amazing Spiderman film on Thursday, April 24, at 2pm, specifically for children who suffer from the condition and their families.

For more information, visit the National Autistic Society Blaenau Gwent Branch Facebook page, email blae, or call Nicola on 07824 451240.