"I’m proud to say that the North East Autism Society continues to grow." HERE goes with the first instalment of my blog, in which I’ll be doing my best to keep everyone up to date with developments at the North East Autism Society. I wanted to start by paying tribute to our staff, who continue to show the most amazing dedication, creativity, and care in these horrendously difficult times. The pandemic continues to present all kinds of challenges but, from the beginning of the lockdown last March, I have been in awe of the way staff in all departments have responded. I have always been immensely proud of the people working for the Society, but never more so than over the festive period. With the new strain of the virus causing havoc in the run up to Christmas, the charity had to cope with the consequences of the last-minute change of Government policy, resulting in a third national lockdown. We had to explain to autistic people, and their families, why holiday arrangements had been shattered, and staff had to make all kinds of adjustments. None of it was easy but the staff were jaw-droppingly brilliant in the way they rolled their sleeves up and did a fantastic job in supporting our families. The letters of appreciation from parents have been incredibly moving, and underline what a fantastic team we have. THE pandemic continues to take a terrible toll in terms of lives lost, with the UK recently exceeding the tragic milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths. Here at NEAS, we have lost three much-loved colleagues of our own – Margi Blyth, Sue Gargett and Tracey Donnelly – and they are greatly missed by us all. One of the saddest consequences of the pandemic is that it hasn’t been possible to say proper goodbyes to loved ones. I know how hard that has been hard for families and friends, but we fully intend to have a memorial service for Margi, Sue and Tracey later this year, once the virus is under control and restrictions have been lifted. Their families will be invited, and we will ensure that those very special women are remembered in the way they so richly deserve… WITH education being hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, we are acutely aware of the pressures being placed on families faced with home schooling. That’s why I was so pleased to see the quality of an innovative “home schooling toolkit” that has been added to the ever-growing suite of online resources developed by the Society for the families of autistic and neurodiverse children. The Family Development Team rose to the challenge by designing the toolkit in the form of a downloadable booklet, full of tips and useful information. It’s a really impressive piece of work and another example of the creativity staff have shown in compiling a wealth of resources that are easily accessible, nicely pitched, informative, fun, and free of charge. The guidance covers everything from toilet training, dietary requirements, sleep patterns, and all aspects of life, and the feedback I am receiving about it is overwhelmingly positive. I was recently talking to Emma Zenaj, Co-Chair of the Stockton Parent Carer Forum, and she was telling me how much families love the online resources provided in our Virtual Hub. She was so impressed and, as a result, has advised the Family Development team to get in touch with her opposite number in Redcar and Cleveland to make sure families in that area are aware of what’s available. When we provide services, we don’t want to do it in isolation - it’s vital that we do it in partnership with parents. All autistic children are different, and parents know the challenges and pressures better than anyone, so it’s really important that we work closely with people like Emma. I’M delighted to report that our expansion in Tees Valley is progressing well, and the results are already really positive. When we opened the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, at South Bank, last September, we initially thought we wouldn’t have any children until November. As it turned out, we had six right from September, and that has now risen to 13, with another 13 referrals. I was at the centre last week, and it was incredible to see the progress that some of the children have made. We deal with things like logistics and financial pressures but seeing the difference in those children is a reminder of what we are all about. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be getting the kitchen fitted out, to increase the in-house catering, and I’ve do doubt The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre will continue to go from strength to strength. The Principal, Tracey Train, and her team are doing a fantastic job. The centre is, of course, named after our patron, Middlesbrough’s world-famous artist, Mackenzie Thorpe, and I know he is eager to visit when the lockdown restrictions are lifted. Hopefully, that will happen before the end of the year, so we can organise an official opening with the great man in attendance. Still on Teesside, the discussions about opening a school for 40 children in Stockton, in partnership with the borough council, are progressing well. If we are back to any kind of normality by September, I’m confident we will be looking at having 30 children at the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, and the first of the 40 children at the new Stockton school. As a result of the expansion, we are continuing with a major recruitment drive, and I’m pleased with how that’s going too. In-house training programmes have been designed so that it’s possible to take someone on as a teaching assistant without previous qualifications and give them the training they need. That can then lead on to them potentially becoming teachers or progressing into management. The same kind of progressive career paths are also open in caring roles, so please spread the word. FINALLY, I just want to say again how grateful I am for the amazing contributions our staff are making. These are unforgettably challenging times but, 40 years after it was founded, I’m proud to say that the North East Autism Society continues to grow. Thank you for the part you are playing in helping us to support more families than ever.