When people say they could eat ‘anything’ they don’t normally mean it, but staff at a Gravesend care home know only too well that literally anything will be viewed as fair game by one of the autistic men they support.
Christopher France, 30, who has lived at Sheringham House since it opened in 2007, is non-verbal and has a disorder called Pica, which means he likes to eat non-food items. Although rare among the general population, Pica is one of the most common eating disorders in individuals with autism.
Christopher’s key worker, Amanda Lunt, said: “There is nothing Christopher wouldn’t consider eating, and staff have to monitor him constantly and always be on their guard.
“Naturally we take precautions to minimise the risk of Christopher eating something inappropriate, but I find the best approach is to be constantly alert to behavioural signals which indicate he’s about to eat something he shouldn’t, and be ready with an appropriate diversion.”
Amanda’s success in monitoring Christopher’s behaviour since she started working at Sheringham House in April 2016 has made it possible for him to go on regular outings and take part in activities which were previously considered too risky.
Amanda said: “A big part of the solution is to make sure that whenever we go out we’ve got a suitable supply of distractions with us, in case we encounter something that might trigger Christopher.
“He loves vending machines, but I’ll offer him a healthy snack instead of a bag of crisps and this usually works.
“He also really loves Coca Cola, but drinking too much of that wouldn’t be good. However if we allow him to hold a small bottle of Coke when he goes out, that keeps him very happy.”
When Amanda first started working with Christopher she found he needed a great deal of encouragement to go out, but with her support he now regularly enjoys outings to places like the Rare Breeds Centre in Ashford – where he especially enjoys petting the rabbits – Cyclopark in Gravesend, and trips to the pub.
Every Friday Amanda takes Christopher swimming in the pool at Shenstone School in Bexleyheath, where he used to be a pupil and where his mother is employed as an administrative assistant.
He recently travelled by train for the first time, an experience Amanda said he clearly enjoyed so long as he could sit with his back to the engine. Plans are now underway to organise a trip to London, and possibly a holiday later in the year.
Amanda said: “Perhaps the highlight of the last year was the birthday party we organised to celebrate him turning 30, with a bouncy castle, a visiting ‘petting zoo’ and party food decorated with varieties of edible ‘buttons’ because Christopher’s nickname is Button.”
She confesses to the occasional mishap, such as on a recent visit to a garden centre café when Christopher managed to sneak a large bite out of a whole coffee cake on the café counter.
“We had to buy the entire cake,” she said, “but on the up-side the other individuals who live at Sheringham House didn’t seem to mind sharing it with him when we got home.”
Amanda’s manager, Mark Welsby, said: “The progress Christopher has made since Amanda has been supporting him has been remarkable, and we’re so pleased to have her on the team.
“We all feel strongly that the people we support should have the same opportunities to go out and enjoy themselves as everyone else, so we develop bespoke care plans for each of them which enables them to live their lives to the full.”