Lil & Gary’s story: why we choose to foster autistic children

Monday 06 March 2023

Lil and Gary have just closed the front door on the last grandchild. They’ve had a full house for most of the half-term week – yet, rather than looking exhausted, they seem ready for another round. With 4 children, 9 grandchildren and 3 foster children, ‘another round’ usually starts before the kettle has finished boiling.

They’ve been together as a couple for 40 years and fostering in London for 25, though they only transferred to National Fostering Group 14 years ago. Lil, a former teaching assistant, is the primary foster carer with Gary, who runs his own automotive business, in a supporting role.

“I’m the fun side,” said Gary, seriously. Lil roared with laughter. “He is! They all love him.”

Their eldest son’s autism led them to specialise in fostering children and young people with autism (known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD) and Asperger’s. They’re currently fostering a teenager, plus 2 young people under the Staying Put scheme.

From teaching assistant to foster carer

“We always had children here,” said Lil. “It was an open house. Our children were always bringing their friends home. They’re hungry, can they stay for tea? Can they come with us to the seaside? Can they stay over? In the end, we bought a minibus and a caravan, because you just can’t fit enough children into a car.

“Some of those kids, I never saw again. They do say that some people come through your life and don’t stay. I hope I made a difference when they needed it. Then our kids grew up and fostering seemed like a good thing to do.”

Tom, their eldest child, is autistic. He’s now 36 and married with a child and a job. His daughter, whose parents are both on ‘the spectrum’, isn’t autistic (though another grandson is). When he was a child, Tom’s teachers described him as ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ and ‘selfish’. He never got invited to his classmates’ houses.

Tom, their eldest child, is autistic. He’s now 36 and married with a child and a job. When he was a child, Tom’s teachers described him as ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ and ‘selfish’. He never got invited to his classmates’ houses.

As Lil noticed him slipping behind in his development, she started volunteering in the classroom. “Tom was building things while the others were writing,” she said. However, it wasn’t the school that suggested Tom should be assessed for autism. “It was during a trip to the dentist. He flagged it to me because Tom couldn’t stand being touched.”

For Lil, witnessing Tom’s struggles and the lack of support, it became personal. She became a teaching assistant with self-taught knowledge in special needs. She followed Tom’s move to a special needs school, where she taught PSHE skills and cookery. Time and again, she felt her positive approach to special needs wasn’t shared. “I felt they gave up,” she said. “Nobody was helping.”

She also found that the more senior she became, the more hands-off she was. She wanted  to make an impact on her own terms, which led her to fostering.

Fostering autistic children

Lil and Gary became foster carers with an independent fostering agency (not National Fostering Group). It was a conscious decision to foster autistic children and Lil was dismayed to discover that other foster carers didn’t feel the way she did.

“Some foster parents couldn’t or wouldn’t cope,” she said. “But, you know, children are like a box of chocolates, as the saying goes. These kids just need adjustments to be made.

“If they don’t like polyester sheets, buy them cotton. If they don’t like the sound of silver foil, don’t handle it when they’re in the room. Buy them the toothpaste they like the feel of. Buy them the shampoo that doesn’t trigger a sensory issue. It’s about being mindful.”

A fostering family

Now with National Fostering Group, the couple care for 3 autistic people, who each require their needs to be met in particular ways. Lil and Gary are more than happy to oblige and are proud of how their own children have responded.

“Our children have been so accommodating. Nobody is left out. They understand. They see that we never said no. We’ve had children in here who’ve been disruptive but they’ve never passed judgement. They’ve been supportive and never given up.

Chris*, who is 13 and has an autism diagnosis, is very rigid with the foods he’ll eat. Lil creates the meals he likes as well as encouraging him to try new things. “He’s been in the system since he was 7,” Lil said. “Autism is a big factor in the ‘why’. He’s been constantly rejected.”

Lovely Lorna. I wish we’d met her years ago.

“Lovely Lorna*. I wish we’d met her years ago. She was pushed from pillar to post. By the age of 15, she’d had 11 failed placements and a failed adoption. I think she was constantly misunderstood. Then she came to us for 3 weeks of respite care and wanted to stay.

“She’s sweet, funny, helpful, loves family holidays. With us, there’s nothing she won’t do, she’ll try everything, even new foods. She’s very independent. She’s doing an apprenticeship at the pharmacy where my daughter works.

“She’s got a dreadful memory – there are little notes everywhere and she uses speaking alarms. They all love anime and she taught herself Japanese – in three different dialects! It’s a special interest.”

Staying Put fostering

Lorna, 18, who has ASD, and Russell*, who is 21 and has Asperger’s, both live with Lil and Gary under the Staying Put scheme. This is available to all foster children to create a longer transition period between ‘coming of age’ and leaving home. It’s useful to people who might need longer to learn skills for independent living, as well as to those who want to go on to further education.

“The social workers thought Russell needed to go into residential care because he was destructive and made threats at the beginning,” said Lil. “He’s remorseful now. The Russell I know is the young man who found a teddy bear in the park and had me wash it and mend it. He couldn’t stand the thought of it being abandoned.

The Russell I know is the young man who found a teddy bear in the park and had me wash it and mend it. He couldn’t stand the thought of it being abandoned.

“He’s very knowledgeable and he loves cars – and anime, of course. He’s an apprentice groundsman where my son works, so he’s being looked after – though Tom doesn’t take any prisoners! He has to do things in a certain order, he gets frustrated, he loses track of time – which isn’t ideal, because he also likes to cook!

“He can get overwhelmed by stress and fear, he goes straight into fight or flight, panics and explodes. He goes shopping with Lorna and I set them tasks to help them become more confident with independence. He’s learning some coping mechanisms, trying hard, but he’s struggling.

“They are open, what you see is what you get. We can chat for hours now, it’s nice to hear them share. When they arrived, there were no smiles, no sense of humour. We have banter now.

“But when it comes to the practical things, you have to be quite direct. Short sentences, stage by stage, spoon feeding information until a task is completed.

She also helps them understand situations where their autism limits their understanding. “They are vulnerable. They can take things literally. If someone joked that they should buy them an iPhone, for example – they might.”

Training and support for foster carers

Not all foster children have special needs like autism, though some do. Tragically, most have experienced neglect or trauma and this can also present challenging behaviours. Lil and Gary meet everything with endless energy and a positive, compassionate attitude – and they are also aglow with satisfaction. Our foster carers widely report that, yes it can be tough sometimes, but it’s worth it.

Lil has done training courses with National Fostering Group, including on mindfulness and the teenage brain. We have an ‘all you can eat’ policy on training – there are dozens of topics to explore – including autism, ADHD and dyslexia – and it’s all free.

The couple are also close to their local team. Our foster carers have the support of a dedicated supervising social worker, who will usually live within the community they serve to be close on hand. As well as scheduled 1-2-1s and regular calls, they can call a helpline 24/7 for advice from a professional. Lil also attends regular meetings with the local authority social worker to discuss Care Plans and Pathway Plans.

Could you change a child’s life?

If you’re feeling inspired and wondering who can foster, you need bags of patience and compassion. Genuine love for working with children. The ability to practise therapeutic fostering (training given) and work with other professionals. The gift of being able to create a safe space. Does this sound like you?

Experience is good too. If you’ve worked in sectors like education, the emergency services, care or healthcare, you’ll be especially suited to a foster carer role.

We welcome applications to become a foster carer from people of all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, physical abilities and the LGBT+ community. You can be single, married, a homeowner or a tenant. Your ability to care for and nurture a child is what really matters.

Next steps?

You might like to try our  Can I Foster? tool, which answers common questions about suitability to foster, based on a personalised Q and A style format. If you’re ready to chat with a real person, contact your local team.

* Not their real names