The pioneering North East Autism Society is celebrating its 40 anniversary this year. Chief Executive John Phillipson talks to PETER BARRON about how businesses can support the next era of increasing autism acceptance

As he looks back to when it all began, John Phillipson is full of admiration for the “brave bunch of souls” who fought so passionately four decades ago to improve the lives of their vulnerable children.

And the chief executive of the North East Autism Society (NEAS) is more determined than ever to go on building on their legacy.

In 1980, those parents set the North-East on the road to autism acceptance and, while the journey is undoubtedly progressing, Mr Phillipson knows there is still some distance to cover.

Speaking ahead of World Autism Awareness Week (March 30-April 5) ­­– which the Society calls ‘Acceptance Week’ ­­– Mr Phillipson has set out his priorities and ambitions for 2020 and beyond.

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“So much has been achieved that we can be really proud of, but we can’t ever rest on our laurels,” he said. “We have to keep finding new ways to help more and more autistic and neurodiverse people lead fulfilling lives, and the business community can play an important part.”

The Society owes its existence to a group of parents who launched a fundraising campaign in Sunderland 40 years ago to open Thornhill Park School, the country’s first residential school for autistic children all year round.

Provision for autistic children at the time was sadly lacking and some parents even re-mortgaged their homes to make the dream a reality. One of them, Paul Shattock, recalls: “People kept telling us we’d never get it off the ground, and there were times when we felt like giving up, but we stuck with it and, slowly but surely, we got there.”

Mr. Shattock, now aged 74, is full of admiration for what the North East Autism Society has gone on to achieve.

“It has grown into a stunning organisation, with dedicated, caring staff doing the most incredible work,” says Paul. “We took it as far as we could, but NEAS has moved it onto a different level altogether and, with more people coming through the system, the need is greater than ever.”

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Forty years on, NEAS has just relocated Thornhill Park School to a newly refurbished site in Sunderland, enabling the Society to increase the building’s capacity from 45 to 75 people. The state-of-the-art school will have modern training facilities, a gym, and an outdoor play area. Meanwhile, the North East Centre for Autism, at Newton Aycliffe, has recently completed a four-classroom extension, increasing capacity from 55 to 80.

The charity is also about to announce details of major developments on Teesside, spreading the reach of its invaluable work across the region, and world-famous Middlesbrough-born artist Mackenzie Thorpe has been installed as patron.

As part of a partnership with Redcar Borough Council, a new building to be opened later this year at South Bank is to be named the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, in honour of the artist who has struggled with dyslexia, which is now recognised as a neurodivergent condition.

And yet while specialist schools clearly have a vital role to play, Mr Phillipson passionately believes that the future priority lies in supporting more autistic children in mainstream education wherever possible – and helping businesses to unlock employment opportunities.

“Even with the extra buildings we are opening up as specialist schools, we won’t even scratch the surface of the need that’s out there,” he says.

“Our future in the years ahead lies in training and mentoring people in mainstream provision in partnership with local authorities.

“There will always be a need for very specialist schools but there is a growing number of children identified as being autistic, or of having other neurodiverse conditions, who can be accommodated in mainstream education where appropriate, and that’s what we have to work towards.”

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There are all kinds of ways that the business community can play a part in supporting autistic and neurodiverse people – from fundraising to providing work placement opportunities and signing up for specialist training to raise awareness.

North-East motor dealer, SG Petch, is one example of a business that has found a way to be supportive during the forthcoming World Autism Awareness Week. The company is providing a “liquid gold” coloured car to tour the region, promoting the charity’s “Go for Gold” initiative.

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The campaign was launched last year, taking its lead from autistic campaigners who preferred the positive associations of gold rather than the Society’s former corporate colour of blue. As a result, a host of North-East landmarks will be lit up gold on World Autism Acceptance Day on April 2. They include the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Penshaw Monument, Stockton Riverside, Middlesbrough’s Newport Bridge, Newcastle Civic Centre, the Northern Spire Bridge at Sunderland, Seaburn Lighthouse, and the town clock in Darlington.

Craig Saunders, general manager at SG Petch in Darlington, said: “It’s an absolute pleasure for us to show our support for such a great charity, doing invaluable work, in its 40th anniversary year.”

NEAS is also striving to help businesses reach the gold standard in autism acceptance though its expert team of trainers. Three years ago, the charity launched the Autism and Neurodiversity Academy (ANDA) to formalise and develop training it was already providing to many organisations.

The aim in 2020 is for ANDA’s impact to grow, not just in the North-East but across the country and to become the go-to training provider for any employer wishing to have a greater understanding of autism and neurodiversity.

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ANDA delivers innovative training across a variety of sectors. Dozens of organisations in the North-East have already benefited from the training, including Newcastle International Airport, motor dealers, shopping centres, theatres, and a variety of retailers.

Mr Phillipson said: “ANDA is an increasingly important part of what we do, and we are eager to work in partnership with businesses, as well as public sector organisations, to look at their physical environment, and the training and development of their employees.

“It’s so important for employers to put themselves in a position where their staff have the confidence and understanding to work with autistic and neurodiverse people.”

Forty years on from being founded by a group of pioneering, passionate parents, the North East Autism Society still has its foot on the accelerator as it drives the North East forward on the road to acceptance.

How businesses can support the North East Autism Society

  1. Sign up for staff training with ANDA, the Autism and Neurodiversity Academy. Discuss your bespoke training needs by visiting www.anda.org.uk, telephone 0191 410 9974, or email info@anda.org.uk.
  2. Many autistic people have skills and qualities that can be an asset to businesses. Help provide work placements and job opportunities for autistic people by contacting Employment Futures at www.ne-as.org.uk/employment-futures-home
  3. Stage your own company fundraising event during World Autism Awareness Week (March 30-April 5). Go to www.ne-as.org.uk and click on fundraising to find out more.
  4. Simply donate, knowing that you are making a difference. Just £5 could pay for activities and refreshments at free toddler groups provided by NEAS. £10 could pay for specialist sensory toys for toddlers and older children. £25 could support the charity’s family outreach work for one hour in the community. Go to www.neas.org.uk/donate/donate/5/credit-card
  • Due to the coronavirus pandemic, NEAS has reviewed its plans for World Autism Awareness Week with much more emphasis being placed on online activities and fundraising opportunities. To find out more click here