A woman with Asperger syndrome has praised the "superb service" she received from autism experts at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, saying she's "not sure she'd be here today" without their help and support.
Sue Penkosky-Cornwell, who lives in Stowmarket, has shared her experience during Autism Awareness Month, which aims to raise awareness of the condition which affects more than 700,000 people across the UK.
The 47-year-old was finally diagnosed with Asperger syndrome following referral to the Trust's Suffolk Autism Diagnostic Service, after suspecting she was suffering from the illness for nearly a decade.
Since then, she has been given the help and support she need to cope with Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism causing difficulties with communication and interaction.
"To have the diagnosis confirmed has made a significant difference to my attitudes towards my abilities and my self-perceived failures," said Sue.
"It gave my partner, who was kept involved during the whole diagnostic process, a chance to learn a lot more about me, which means I have a whole new and understanding support system both at home and in my wider family. It made me learn a lot more about myself, and gave me the much-needed confirmation that I needed to seek adaptations at work. It also opened the way to some fantastic post-diagnostic services that have made me evaluate my life, given me the ability to arrest control over difficult phases of depression and given me an unprecedented new level of self-confidence.
"The Autism Diagnostic Service was absolutely wonderful. The lead clinical psychologist, Dr Colm Magee, was friendly and warm and made the two-and-a-half hour appointment very easy and comfortable for me.
"He treated me as someone who mattered in the system, and left me feeling that I hadn't been going slowly insane all these years."
The Suffolk Autism Diagnostic Service caters for patients aged 18 and over, and offers discussion and counselling for people who may be on the autistic spectrum but do not have a diagnosis.
Launched 18 months ago, it has already had more than 300 referrals, while colleagues in the service's youth team, which has been running a year, have clocked up nearly 200 referrals.
The multi-disciplinary team of experienced clinicians complete a comprehensive assessment – sometimes during several different appointments – so that they can make sure patients and their families receive an accurate diagnosis. They then provide advice, support and – where appropriate – counselling to help patients manage their condition and cope with any challenges they have been facing, as well as signposting them to other agencies.
"I've had two follow-up appointments for the post-diagnosis process, have attended classes for newly-diagnosed Asperger adults and plan to go along to social groups the service has arranged. The staff seem to go out of their way to help people on the autism spectrum," added Sue.
"More recently during a meltdown, I was able to call the centre and receive direct support from senior staff, which was an enormous help in calming me down, as well as help with coping strategies and a way forward. Without them, I'm not sure I'd be here today.
"There are clearly areas of the NHS that are silently excellent. The Autism Diagnostic Service in Suffolk is one of them and I hope that they're recognised for their superb service."
Dr Colm Magee, Clinical Lead and Clinical Psychologist with the service, said: "We have been overwhelmed by the excellent feedback we have received since the service launched 18 months ago. The number of referrals we have received so far show there was a real need for this dedicated service, and we are delighted to be making such a difference to people's lives.
"Previously, patients had to travel to London or Cambridge for a specialist diagnosis. We have tried to make our service as convenient as possible by offering clinics across the county so that people can get the help they need closer to home.
"We have also designed the service carefully to make it autism friendly. For example, we don't offer to shake hands as people with the condition don't often like being touched. We'll also take plenty of breaks to make it that little bit easier for people.
"So far, we have diagnosed people of all ages, ranging from 18 to 73. Although the diagnosis won't change what has happened in their lives, it can help them to make sense of their past, which is really important. It is also vital in helping them to learn the coping mechanisms which will allow them to tackle any difficulties they are facing and enjoy a good quality of life."
Anyone who thinks they could benefit from a referral should speak to their GP.
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