Blog contributed by Peter Barron

Ever since their beloved middle son was diagnosed as autistic, Bob and Linda Cuffe have been fighting for Liam.

“We refused to accept that he wouldn’t have any prospects and vowed to do whatever it took to give him the best chance in life,” says Bob as he sits in the sun outside a coffee shop in Stokesley, reflecting on a battle that took decades to win.

It’s been a hard fight – heartbreaking and exhausting – but the couple can look back in the knowledge that Liam is happy now, because he’s in the care of the North East Autism Society – a charity that Bob describes as a “godsend”.

Bob is well established as one of the area’s most prominent business figures, with more than 35 years’ experience in the regional media. Formerly Trinity Mirror regional managing director, he now serves as chair of JICREG (the Joint Industry Currency for Regional Media Research), vice chair of Darlington Building Society, and a non-executive director for Jacksons Law, Thirteen Group and Tees Business magazine.

He’s also chaired the Tees Valley Chamber of Commerce, been a board member of the Institute of Directors in the region, served on the South Tees Development Corporation board, been actively involved with the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry, and part of the SSI Taskforce that was set up to fight for thousands of ill-fated Teesside steel jobs. It came as no surprise when Redcar-born Bob was deservedly awarded the MBE in 2018 for services to business and economic development on Teesside.

He’s a man who has never been afraid to use his connections and experience to influence change and lobby for support. And he had no hesitation in agreeing to tell his family story, in the hope it inspires the business community to support NEAS as it expands its vital services across the Tees Valley...

Bob and Linda have been married for 40 years and have three sons: Christopher, 31, Liam, 29, and Kieran, 25. Liam was born in Nuneaton, while Bob was the Coventry Telegraph’s advertising director. By the time Bob moved his family back to his native North East two years later, having accepted an offer to become general advertising manager at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle,

Liam’s natural development had stalled.

“He couldn’t go anywhere without his favourite blanket – he was standing still, and we could see something was wrong, but we knew nothing about autism,” recalls Bob.

“Liam started to have various tests until we were given the cold and brutal diagnosis that Liam was autistic. We were told he faced serious  challenges, his prospects were grim, and it was a terrible time. We just felt devastated and alone.”

That’s when the fight began in earnest. Liam was sent to a special needs school, in Gateshead, where the provision for autistic children was “sadly lacking and awful”.

“I couldn’t talk about it. I felt a lot of anger and I don’t think I became a very good person at that time,” admits Bob. “Unlike Linda, I had the comfort of work and there were times I used it to hide. Linda was truly extraordinary – a lioness looking after her cubs.”

Through Barnardo’s, in Gateshead, Linda had met two other mums of autistic children. The women were to become lifelong friends and their discussions became a turning point. Having carried out research into autism, Bob and Linda found the pioneering Higashi School, in Boston, USA, where there was evidence of autistic children making dramatic progress.

Liam was taken to Boston to be assessed when he was five and joined the school a year later. With Bob and Linda losing a tribunal after Gateshead Borough Council refused to provide financial support, the couple had to scrape together the £50,000-per-year cost from their savings and fundraising events.

“On the first flight to Boston, the stewardess asked why we were going and, on the flight back, the same crew handed over £250 they’d collected for us. I’ll never forget that act of kindness to complete strangers,” says Bob. “It was heartbreaking, leaving him for 14 weeks at a time, but we could see he was making progress.”

Eventually, Gateshead Borough Council agreed to pay roughly half of the costs of sending Liam to Boston, and he was there for two years. However, the couple were persuaded that provision back on Tyneside had improved, so they brought their son home.

“We quickly discovered it hadn’t improved at all, and we felt like we were back to square one,” says Bob.

When the family moved to Stokesley, ahead of Bob being made managing director of the Gazette, Liam attended a special needs school in Morton-on-Swale before being moved to a care provider in Murton when he was 18. It remained tough but everything changed for the better after Bob read about a family complaining about being served by an autistic waiter in Manchester. Owner Mike Jennings had backed the waiter in the face of the criticism, and Bob was moved to write a Facebook post, supporting the restaurant’s stance, and highlighting the challenges he and Linda had faced with Liam.

Journalist Lindsay Bruce, who had been at the Gazette during Bob’s time as MD, had moved on to work in the marketing department at NEAS and brought the Cuffe family’s plight to the attention of the charity’s chief executive, John Phillipson.

The result was that NEAS found a place for Liam at a residential home called Brentwood, in Sunderland, and he’s still there. He also attends another adult day centre, known as Number 24, where he enjoys a range of activities, including trampolining, swimming, day trips, and a special needs disco.

We were shown videos of him dancing and we couldn’t believe it. His life has been enriched, and a weight has been lifted from us. 

Liam, who also has epilepsy, requires round-the-clock care but comes home for long weekends. “It’s exhausting but it’s a joy to have him home,” adds Bob. “We’re reconciled that Brentwood is his long-term home but he’s still part of our lives.” 

Bob was recently made a patron of NEAS and he’s determined to do whatever he can to support the charity, which has recently opened two new schools on Teesside.

“If, through my business contacts, I can be an advocate for NEAS – whether it’s encouraging work experience and employment, or fundraising – I’ll be proud to do it,” says Bob.

NEAS has stood shoulder to shoulder with my family, and I can’t thank them enough. The charity has my full confidence, and it would be a fantastic asset to any business. Talk to me, or talk to NEAS, and find out how you can help make a difference.

“The difference they made to us has been life-changing, because we know that when we’re not here, someone who really cares will have Liam’s back. We don’t have to fight anymore – because the North East Autism Society is there to do the fighting for us.”

To find out more about how you can support the work of the North East Autism Society, and how this could benefit your business, please visit, email [email protected] or contact the Society’s fundraising team on 0191 312 1112.