IT ALL began when a group of parents embarked on a mission that was to change the world for families of autistic children living in the North-East.

Re-mortgaging their homes, they set up what was then called the Tyne and Wear Autistic Society and bought the charity’s first property, a former Jewish Day School in Thornhill Terrace, Sunderland, in 1980.

Known as No. 21, it became the first school of its kind in the UK, providing educational and residential programmes for autistic children who were unable to access the support they needed to thrive.

An ambitious vision was outlined to create better opportunities for autistic children and the charity has flourished since those early days. It was renamed the North East Autism Society (NEAS) a decade ago and has developed into a ground-breaking organisation offering a wide range of bespoke services for autistic children and adults, as well as round-the-clock support for families.

Plans are being put in place at present for NEAS to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2020, with an expanded programme of events offering all kinds of opportunities for the North-East business community to get involved with a charity which is making a difference to families across the region.

Chief executive John Phillipson hopes the anniversary will inspire companies to show their support. “The vision of those parents 40 years ago made an incredible difference to families of autistic people in this region,” he says. “They saw what needed to be done and made it happen. Now we have the opportunity to unashamedly build on that legacy and use the 40th anniversary to make a bigger impact than ever before.”

That impact is already proving invaluable, with a breadth of specialist education, social and vocational programmes, round-the-clock family support services, workshops teaching employment skills, residential homes, supported living arrangements and toddler groups.

In recent years the charity has bought and developed New Warlands Farm, near Edmondsley, in County Durham, where it offers a diverse range of programmes based on the individual assessed needs of service-users.

The programmes comprise a range of vocational and social activities including woodwork, textiles, IT, horticulture, therapy, leisure, accessing the community, card making, sensory experiences and golf.

In spring 2018, state-of-the-art lodges were opened at the farm to give families short breaks, and the UK’s first autism-friendly golf driving range was launched earlier this year.

This month sees the relaunch of prestigious Royal Horticultural Society gardening courses, and an extensive apple orchard is being planted.

While they are busy planting apple trees at the farm, Sophie Clarke – the charity’s event and community fundraiser – has the challenge of growing strong corporate links that will bear fruit in terms of volunteers and fundraising.

“We are really lucky to have loyal corporate supporters who not only raise money but provide volunteers. They are an absolute godsend because the volunteering helps us stage events and keep costs down, while the fundraising generates vital income.

“Corporate Social Responsibility brings so many benefits for companies in terms of developing new skills, team-building and leadership, and most importantly allows to give back in a way that really does change lives. There are going to be even more opportunities as we move forward into our anniversary year.”

A shining example of a company which has forged a mutually-beneficial CSR partnership with NEAS is BGL, a digital distributor of insurance and household financial services based in Sunderland.

The relationship began when BGL helped run a tombola for NEAS at last year’s Durham Shopping Extravaganza at Ramside Hall Hotel, near Durham, which helped to raise £10,000.

The company went on to sponsor the decorations at a Halloween garden party at Thornhill Park School and a Christmas carol service at Sunderland Minster.

BGL also sent a team to help with registrations for the Walk for Autism event at Herrington Country Park in Sunderland, in April, and recently entered a team in the Clarty Bairns fundraising event – a muddy obstacle course organised by Challenge Northumberland at Stocksfield.

Emily Downes, CSR specialist with BGL, says: “Supporting our local communities is an integral part of our CSR programme. We thoroughly enjoy volunteering for such a fantastic charity that really gives back to so many within the local community.

“Being able to support NEAS gives us a tremendous sense of pride, not to mention how much fun we have working alongside the team at their fundraising and awareness events.”

There are many other examples of companies getting involved with NEAS.

One of these is the opportunity businesses had to support the charity by sponsoring runners in a fun-packed mascot race held at Redcar Races in May. This idea is to be replicated at Newcastle Races on October 11.

“We’d love to hear from any businesses who have ideas for events or want to get involved with us in any way as we head towards our 40th anniversary,” says Sophie.

As NEAS continues to expand its services, there are also plenty of opportunities to join the award-winning charity as an employee across a wide range of disciplines, including education, care and fundraising.

Forty years on from a group of parents striving to provide a better education for their children, the North East Autism Society continues to find ways to enrich lives – and you can be part of it.