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Perth mum inspired by ‘absolute hero’ son to set up autism group helping 870 local families

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When Angie Ferguson completed a psychology degree at Dundee University she couldn’t have dreamed that she would go on to set up an autism charity helping hundreds of local families.

Like many young adults, she graduated with lots of learning under her belt but a distinct lack of clarity on her career path.

It was only at the age of 31, after her son Matthew was diagnosed with autism, that the fog began to clear and Angie’s heart moved her into a direction that would become her career.

Fourteen years on, as the founder of Perth Autism Support she oversees a charity that supports an average of 240 young people every week, with more than 900 families across Perth and Kinross signed up.

Angie and Matt Ferguson.

Matthew, now 18, is her “absolute hero” who “has flourished into a great young man”.

“Doing this was never the plan, but then, I didn’t know what the plan was,” says Angie.

In this feature Angie reveals how Matthew’s early struggles inspired her to devote a big part of her life to helping others in a similar position.

And she tells of her own personal challenges, including two separate cancer diagnoses in the space of two years.

It is divided into the following sections:

  • Childhood surgery and travels
  • Work, life and death
  • Autism diagnosis
  • Charity success
  • Anxiety and cancer
  • Matthew achievement
  • Growth and relocation

Childhood surgery and travels

It sounds cliched but Angie Ferguson really did have a tough start to life.

Born 45 years ago in Homerton Hospital, north-east London, she became “unexpectedly poorly” and needed an operation at just four months old.

At the time her father, John Bywalec, was an officer with the Metropolitan Police and the health scare persuaded Angie’s mother to move the family to her hometown of Perth.

He joined the prison service, which involved a lot of moving around that had a lasting effect on Angie.

Angie Ferguson.

“Because I moved around I was always the outsider, the new girl, and had to find my place,” she says. “This is why I always went out of my way to welcome new people.

“Had I not had to fit in at so many places I would also have been a lot more introverted as an adult.

“It also made me appreciate having roots as an adult.”

Work, life and death

Angie completed a psychology degree at Dundee University but, like many other young adults, had no long-term career plan.

“I found it difficult to find the thing that grabbed me,” she says, so she took a job as a recruitment consultant in Edinburgh, which was also a challenge to her instincts.

“I felt uncomfortable with the sales element but I did like seeing the buzz and excitement of people whose lives I had helped change through employment.

“It is not about what someone gives me but what I can give others. I can feed off that.”

‘He was a massive influence all through my life’

Angie moved back to Perth when she became pregnant while with a former partner. She gave birth to Matthew in March 2003, when she was 26.

Just over a year later saw a more unwanted event, the death of her father.

“He was a massive influence all through my life,” Angie says. “We had a very, very close bond and were very similar as people: both headstrong and determined, and a lot of my work ethic comes from home.

“It was a tricky time – I had a newborn baby and had split from Matthew’s dad.”

These personal challenges were accompanied by professional ones too. “I was not feeling fulfilled,” she says.

Angie began working in Perth and Kinross Council’s homeless services department and “absolutely loved it”.

“I did 16 hours a week and there was no pressure,” she says. “I needed that at the time.

“We didn’t have a great amount of street homeless but it was still a reminder that a simple life event can have a big effect.”

Autism diagnosis

A highly significant event happened in 2008 when Matthew, then aged five, was diagnosed with autism.

Angie reflects that she knew “there was something different about him” when he was at Friarton Nursery.

“He didn’t enjoy being with other children,” she says. “We’d had conversations with his nursery and put him through the process of assessment but that was taking a long time.”

Tulloch Primary School.

Only when Matthew began at Tulloch Primary School did his condition become clear.

“During the very first week the school said they were concerned about him,” Angie says.

“I had to pick him up one day and he was sobbing in the classroom, looking out at the children outside.

“Seeing my child really wanting to play with other children yet so visibly struggling was one of the most heartbreaking moments I have had as a parent.”

Angie says that an NHS consultant soon established that Matthew had autism and dyspraxia.

“At that point our whole life changed,” she remembers.

‘We saw someone with an amazing sense of humour’

One of the changes had to be Angie’s understanding of how her perception of her son differed to other people’s.

Matt Ferguson.

“From the outside he was a disengaged, angry little boy,” she says, “but at home we saw someone with an amazing sense of humour who was very articulate and loving.

“It became a real need to make sure he was being supported and he needed someone with him all the time.

“I am a doer and felt there was nothing for young autistic children, not just Matt.”

Charity success

In 2011, when Matthew was eight years old, Angie set up Perth Autism Support (PAS).

This was timed to perfection because it was the year the Scottish Government launched its first Scottish Strategy for Autism.

With it came funding opportunities and Angie won £11,000 to get her group up and running at Inveralmond Business Centre.

Picture from November 2017 promoting a charity calendar. Parents Kath Booth, Craig Burnett, Gillian Anderson with daughter Ellis, and (back L/R) Angie Ferguson, photographer Les Mitchell, Katie Burnett (Craig’s daughter) and Teri Slorach, children’s services manager.

At this time she still had the day job so only organised events, such as football sessions in Letham during Easter 2012, when possible.

“I wanted Matt to meet friends and us to meet parents who were going through similar things,” she says.

The idea soon grew “arms and legs” and in May 2012 she went full-time after receiving more government funding.

Anxiety and cancer

In almost 10 years the group has continued to expand but Angie has faced personal obstacles along the way.

In 2015, when Matt was 12, he was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, “impacting every part” of her life.

“He was very good academically and highly motivated to make friends but didn’t understand social norms,” she says.

“His anxiety came from being overwhelmed with life and he became less likely to try things and integrate with the community.”

‘Thankfully it was spotted at an early stage’

In 2017 Angie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which was fortunately halted before it could spread.

“I went through so much that it stopped me getting a lot done,” she says. “It made me realise that the charity was bigger than me so I created a better infrastructure with a new board of trustees.

“From 2017 we have gone from strength to strength.”

Angie and Matt Ferguson.

But for Angie another cancer blow was just a year away. In 2018 she was diagnosed with melanoma after a friend noticed a six-inch scar on her face.

“It was a mole that I had had on my face my whole life that started growing,” Angie says. “Thankfully it was spotted at an early stage and it was removed without surgery.

“It made me super-aware of any little change.”

Matthew achievement

Matthew, who is now 18, went on to attend Perth Grammar School, leaving with “amazing qualifications”: highers in environmental science, biology, chemistry and computing.

Angie, Matt and Gordon Ferguson, the charity’s retail and business coordinator.

“He is my absolute hero,” says Angie. “He has lived an entire childhood of having to try extra-hard at everything.

“He has pushed through anxiety and situations that I know many of my adult friends have struggled with.

“He is an absolute champion and is now at Perth College doing computer science.

“He has flourished into a great young man and has learned so much about how to support himself.”

Growth and relocation 

PAS has grown to support an average of 240 young people every week and more than 900 families are registered for its services across Perth and Kinross.

Charity staff, members and volunteers at an event in November 2019 to mark the release of a Christmas single.

Its 24 members of staff and 30 volunteers help young people and their families access services as well as social and job opportunities. PAS offers one-to-one support and training services.

The group caters for youngsters with autism and those on a formal pathway for assessment. Its youngest client is just three years old.

“At PAS our young people have so many strengths and amazing things they can add to school work and general community life,” says Angie.

Funding is stable. The group receives 65% of its income from public authorities, trusts and foundations. These include Perth and Kinross Council, The National Lottery and The Gannochy Trust.

Another 20% comes from corporate and community fundraising, with the remaining 15% from renting out rooms at its 28-30 Market Street base.

‘We have had lots of teary nights’

One of the group’s difficulties comes when clients reach the age of 18 and have to leave the service.

“That’s the worst thing,” Angie says. “We have had lots of teary nights with people saying ‘that’s it’ so now we have a transition service to prepare them for the future.

“Between the ages of 14 and 18 the users spend more time with their peers and it becomes more youth services than children’s services.

“It is hard going but we have had young people leave to go to college and employment, which is amazing to see.”

‘I hated seeing people being bullied at school’

Angie is looking forward to the future and a new home for PAS when the charity moves to bigger premises at New Row in February 2022.

“I have a drive to make things right and have a sense of justice and equality, to give everyone the same life opportunities,” she says.

A fundraising event.
Courier Business Awards 2019 presenter Phil Jupitus with the Perth Autism Support team.

“Autism shouldn’t be a barrier – you might need to approach things differently but none of it is insurmountable.

“Ever since I have been a child I have hated injustice. I hated seeing people being bullied at school.

“There has been almost a lost generation of huge talent and skill because there was not a support programme. This makes me mad.

“To me, success is seeing our young people flourishing, finding their place, finding their friends and people around them who get them and celebrate them.

“Doing this was never the plan, but then, I didn’t know what the plan was.

“I love it and I would not change it.”

LISTEN: Perth autism charity group launches new single ahead of Christmas

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