Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

New guidance on social prescribing

A new report has revealed how social prescribing can benefit autistic people and people with learning disabilities, and provides guidance for link workers and social prescribing services, people and their supporters, community groups, and commissioners and funders.

The report, Building Bridges – Social Prescribing with people with learning disabilities and autistic people, found that social prescribing has the potential to reduce health inequalities and build social capital by connecting people to community groups, and support services in their area, to help with both mental and physical wellbeing.

The research was conducted by the Valuing People Alliance – a group made up of six organisations – Learning Disability England, BILD, NDTi, VODG, Paradigm, Respond and the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities.

Minimal research has been conducted on social prescribing for autistic people and people with learning disabilities

The report found that very little research has been conducted about people with a learning disability or autistic people and their experiences of social prescribing.

To fill this knowledge gap, the Alliance conducted two surveys: one for link workers and social prescribing services and another for people with lived experience and their families or supporters.

The Alliance also spoke to 25 people with different roles and experiences on a one to one basis or in small groups. This included three people with lived experience, three people who manage or run social prescribing link working services, three people from NHS England involved in social prescribing, six people from community groups, seven link workers and three people doing research about social prescribing.

The benefits of social prescribing

The researchers analysed the data from the surveys and the interviews they conducted, and concluded that there are many positive aspects to social prescribing, and many things that worked well for both staff and those who use the service. This includes:

  • Activities are based on personal interests and a person-centred approach allows the person to feel heard.
  • People with learning disabilities are able to benefit and thrive when they were connected with the right activities or groups consistently.
  • Activities can build confidence and improve mental wellbeing.
  • Some projects link social prescribing with annual health checks (AHCs) and people have a chance to meet their link worker after their AHC.
  • Opportunities for travel training (i.e. teaching someone how to use public transport which builds confidence and independence).
  • Link workers are able to attend activity with person for first few times if necessary.

What were the challenges and what needs improving?

As well as these positive aspects, there were some challenges faced by both staff and individuals using the service. This includes:

  • Suitable local activities aren’t always available. Community groups and activities that work well can reach capacity and don’t have the investment to grow.
  • Some people who needed support to stay involved in an activity didn’t have someone to support them – either families were already busy, or they couldn’t get paid or volunteer support.
  • Sometimes activities had a cost, and many people or families could not afford the cost of the activity or the travel.
  • Reasonable adjustments weren’t always made.
  • Motivation to start an activity was sometimes lacking, and sometimes building confidence takes longer than a usual link worker referral.
  • There can be particular challenges in rural settings where there are fewer things going on which might be further away from where people live or harder to travel to.
  • The challenge for link workers was connecting people to services that can continue supporting them and sustaining these positive connections.
  • Link workers found themselves having to help people apply for a personal health/personal budget or for social care support directly. Sometimes this process took a long time or didn’t result in support.
  • Many link workers had limited fixed times or numbers of appointments they could spend with each person. Often this wasn’t enough time when someone needed more support to get to know them and support them to try and engage in new things.

What can be done to improve access to social prescribing services?

With these challenges and benefits in mind, the Valuing People Alliance has created guidance for link workers and social prescribing services, for people and their supporters, for community groups, and for commissioners and funders.

It advises link workers to work flexibly within their boundaries, to engage with families, to use strengths-based approaches, to spend time with community groups and to explore mainstream and specialist groups and activities or services for people.

People with learning disabilities and autistic people are advised to engage with their link workers and tell them what activities they would love to do or are interested in, ask to keep things local and get support to attend new activities if possible.

Community groups should create buddy schemes, be brave and welcoming, ask as much about the person as possible and apply for local grants to reasonable adjustments can be made.

Commissioners and funders should make grants available for community groups, commission link workers with experience in learning disability or autism, use annual health checks as an opportunity to discuss social prescribing and tell families and carers about social prescribing.

The full guidance can be found here.

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