THE idea that her toddler son Sam might be autistic had not even occurred to Alice O’Neill when she reached out to her health visitor for extra support.

So she was surprised when the health visitor put her in touch with the Family Development service at the North East Autism Society to attend an autism workshop.

It turned out to be a godsend, however. Kerrie Highcock, Family Development Manager, supported Alice through the maze of getting three-year-old Sam the help he needed. And the autism hubs, workshops and one-to-one sessions that Kerrie’s team runs have also helped Alice understand autism and her son better.

“Before I came to the hub, I didn’t know anything about sensory needs – I didn’t even realise it was a thing,” says Alice, who lives in Hazelrigg, Newcastle, with Sam.

“Kerrie gave me advice on things like peanut balls, for deep pressure, and fidget toys. I also learned about stimming (self-stimulating behaviour) and realised that Sam does lots of things that I would never have known were stims until it was explained to me.

Without the hub, I don’t think I would have been as far forward or have the correct understanding of autism and the support my child needs.

A lot of families feel quite isolated when they get a diagnosis and don’t know where to turn for help. That’s where the Family Development service steps in, Kerrie says.

Her team runs autism hubs in North Tyneside and Newcastle and a workshop in South Tyneside, as well as one-to-one sessions, family support workshops, and toddler and young people's groups.

“To have that direct link with somewhere like the North East Autism Society is really important because it gives families the right information at the right time in the right place,” Kerrie says.

Alice agrees, and has told friends with autistic or neurodivergent children all about it. “It gives parents somewhere to go, ask questions.

Because it’s relaxed, you don’t feel anxious and never feel like you’re saying the wrong thing. It’s all about support and help, which I think parents need.

Parents can contact Family Development via email at [email protected] or by phone at 0191 410 9974. You can also apply to join their Facebook group called North East Autism Society – Family Networking.

Read more about Family Development here