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A stand for our children.

Byline: By Marie Turbill

The difficulties faced by parents of children with autism were hammered home to Prime Minister Tony Blair during a live TV debate.

In the midst of a live studio debate on The Wright Stuff, Maria Hutchings marched up to the PM to tackle him over the closure of her autistic son's school.

Mrs Hutchings, of Essex, has a ten-year-old son who is autistic and also has learning difficulties.

The special needs school that her son attends is currently under threat of closure.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability in varying degrees of severity.

According to the National Autistic Society, there are more than an estimated 500,000 people nationwide with ASD.

And every parent of an autistic child faces their own personal quest for the best possible education and provision for their child - so says Middlesbrough mum-of-two Marie Hunt.

Marie's eldest son Steven has autism and since the 13-year-old's diagnosis she has been involved with the North-eastern Autistic Society.

Talking of her own fight she says: "I feel that the battle for Steven's education has been much worse than getting the diagnosis. The hardest part was not so much accepting the diagnosis but the fact that we have had to battle."

Today Marie classes herself and her family as one of the lucky ones. Her 13-year-old son has a statement of educational needs, a legally binding document stating the specialist provision he is entitled to. He is currently happy studying at Nunthorpe Secondary School and before that at Marton Manor.

Marie cannot praise both schools enough. However, she says the process of getting the right level of support and provision for Steven was a living nightmare.

"We had to fight for a lot when Steven was younger. It is a gutting process and you don't always fully understand it at the time.

"Steven is now well supported because we have fought hard for him. Once you get there it is great."

With this in mind, Marie can sympathise with the frustration felt by protester Maria Hutchings.

"You have to choose the right school for the individual child. You can't block them into one option."

Whilst Marie says "inclusion" is a lovely word it is important to realise that not every mainstream school is suitable for every child.

And in her experience with the North-east Autistic Society, Marie has spoken to parents who have felt that some mainstream schools have been reluctant to take their child.

"Mainstream has worked for Steven but I wouldn't have liked to not have a choice," she said.

* Contact numbers for parents of an autistic child:

The Main Project 01642 277450.

NAS Autism Helpline 0845 0704004 open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm. Or log on to: www.autism.org.uk

'More is needed'

Mum-of-three Anna Wood is a project officer with The Main Project based at Middlesbrough's Beverley School.

The scheme is aimed at supporting the families of children with autism regardless of where they are educated.

"We work with more than 400 families in the Tees Valley area," she says.

"The reason the project is there is that parents didn't feel very supported after their child was diagnosed."

The Main Project brings together multiple agencies to provide support and information on a range of issues families might face.

The project also holds support groups as well as a social club for the children and young people.

"This area is very proactive," says Anna, of Coulby Newham. "Unfortunately this is not the same all over the country."

Anna's own son, Daniel, was diagnosed with autism when he was two. He is now 13 and attends a special school.

The mum-of-three has an older son, James, 15, with severe disabilities and a young daughter Olivia, who is just ten months.

"It is the same for every family with a child with a disability or learning difficulty. You do have to fight for your kids, fight to get them in the right school, fight for benefits and fight for recognition," she says.

While her son is just 13 she must now start making decisions about what he will do at 16 and when he reaches 16 what he will do at 19.

"At the moment there is very little after school provision in this area," she says.

"A lot of children leaving Beverley School are looking to the Sunderland area to meet their needs.

"What we want are more of these services here in Teesside."

School is leading the way

Recent years have seen the axe fall on many special schools across the UK.

But while some such establishments are being forced to close, here on Teesside it is a different story.

Abbey Hill School Technology College in Stockton has just achieved the National Autistic Society's Autism accreditation certificate.

It is thought to be the first state school in the North-east to do so and also the first technology college nationally to achieve the award.

Dave Barlow, of Abbey Hill, says: "It is definitely a good thing for the school, the students and parents."

Abbey Hill caters for youngsters with a wide range of special needs and learning difficulties from the ages of 11 to 19.

Here on Teesside Dave says: "Specialist education has always been reasonable, if not good."

Stockton Borough Council's acting head of inclusion services, Ian Edmunds, explains they offer a range of provisions.

"Nationally there has been an increase in the number of children identified as autistic. We have noticed the same increase in Stockton.

"The services we have developed have been in response to that pressing need."

Services include both special schools and provisions in mainstream schools. There are also training classes for parents, a preschool centre and an outreach team.

Find out more about Abbey Hill School Technology College at: www.abbeyhill. stockton.sch.uk
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Title Annotation:Family Life
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Feb 28, 2005
Words:971
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