THERE are fears that autistic adults could be driven to suicide if the only service centre for them in the Highlands is forced to close next year.
The startling claim was made by one of the hundreds of service users from all over the region who receive financial, emotional and practical support from the Highland One Stop Shop (HOSS) in Ardross Street, Inverness.
Two months ago they were devastated to hear that the Albion House building had been sold and that the new owners had given them until October 21 to leave the premises.
A fundraising drive was launched to try and raise enough money for a new, permanent premises and more than £12,500 was donated via a Justgiving page.
But now the centre has been dealt another blow as NHS Highland has told staff and service users that the health service’s contribution will be slashed from £50,000 to £23,000. This would mean the amount Autism Initiatives pays to keep the centre running would jump from £100,000 to £127,000.
Autism Initiatives does not believe it can keep the service alive without more financial help.
National director for Autism Initiatives, Catherine Steedman, said: "This is extremely disappointing news and if we do not get confirmation of a significant level of funding, we will have no option but to close in April next year."
Service user Kathy (45) believes losing the service would also have a huge impact on the police, NHS and social services. She said many autistic people found it difficult to gain access to the correct benefits and services without help, as she herself did before finding the One Stop Shop.
"Many people can be driven to suicidal thoughts, self-harm and have a drastic decline in their mental health and, without a place like this, it is really hard to see how many people would stand a chance," she said.
"To take away this service would be incredibly short-sighted because the demand for services such as the NHS, the police, social work and any point of crisis management would be vastly increased. This centre is often a preventative measure for people.
"People’s lives are literally in danger because of this – it is such a specialised service."
She said she was also worried about social isolation among autistic people of all ages.
"This place is just getting started. There are older autistic people who have been isolated all their lives and we need to be growing and reaching out to them – if the service goes it will be so destructive."
Jobs will also go if the centre closes. The Highland One Stop Shop is revolutionary in that three out of five of the staff are autistic.
One service user who did not want to be named believes that she used to cost NHS Highland at least £30,000 a year before she joined the Highland One Stop Shop.
She was forced to take strong medication for 20 years, access mental health services and meet with social workers regularly.
"I was a drain on the NHS," she said. "I am just one person and I must be saving the NHS thousands every year by coming here."
Another service user, Aaron Ivan Vass, does not believe that people understand how crucial a role the One Stop Shop plays.
He said: "I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety my whole life. I’ve gone through doctors, psychiatric professionals and charitable organisations but nothing has helped me as much as the Highland One Stop Shop.
"When I’m there I feel normal and accepted – without it I’ll go back to being unhappy and spend my days wandering around town again.
"I need the One Stop Shop and I wish people understood that and stopped overlooking all the help it provides."
Fellow user Ruth Strong (20) said: "If I lost this place I don’t know what I would do. When I got the news I nearly cried – I had to leave the room.
"Before I came here I was so ashamed to be autistic.
"I have always wanted to become a famous writer or illustrator and I thought that if I became famous I wouldn’t tell anyone that I was autistic, but now I would.
"I would tell people because it might help people that are feeling like I did back then."
And Heather Williams (26), who also uses the centre, said: "This place is everything to us – we have all had so much help and it is good to know that there is somewhere we can go to speak to people."
A spokeswoman for the NHS said the £50,000 was given as a one-off payment based on the value of the service but with clear agreement that the service needed to look to self-funding.
She added: "For next year, bearing in mind our financial position, we have managed to find funding for the lease of a new building [the location of which has yet to be confirmed] to try and support this valuable service."
MP for Inverness Nairn, Badenoch and Strathespey, Drew Hendry, has spoken out in support of the facility.
He said: "I will arrange to meet with them, NHS Highland, other agencies and the Scottish Government to explore ways to allow them to continue to operate beyond next year."
To donate to the centre, go to www.justgiving.com/fundraising/highland-one-stop-shop.