Blog contributed by Peter Barron
NEAS Patron and Journalist

FIVE years ago today, the focus of my column in the Northern Echo was Jonathan Raiseborough, an autistic teenager who didn’t quite fit in, struggled to make friends, and faced an uncertain future.

Today, it is a joy to continue Jonathan’s inspirational story as a way of breaking down the barriers that often surround the lives of autistic people.

Just to recap…Jonathan was different as a little boy and there were times when he was bullied while growing up in Darlington. It wasn’t until he reached primary school that he was diagnosed as autistic and his family finally had an explanation for the challenges he was having.

And Jonathan wasn’t just different – he was special. It quickly became clear that he had a gift for art and he developed a childhood ambition to be children’s book illustrator, like Quentin Blake, who brought his favourite Roald Dahl books to life.

I’d first met Jonathan in 2016 when I’d compered an awards night for young people in Darlington when his artistic skills were deservedly recognised. By happy coincidence, I was looking for an illustrator for a children’s novel I’d written, called Snowdrop The Spikeshuffler, about an albino hedgehog who emerges as a hero after being picked on because he’s different.

A conversation led to Jonathan illustrating the book, which was published with the help of NEAS. Jonathan’s story was featured on a national TV programme, called This Time Next Year, and he became an ambassador for the Society.

But that was just the start. Five years on, Jonathan’s talent has taken him a long way. The boy, who didn’t fit in, found the confidence to go to Teesside University to study for a degree in graphic design and illustration.

He found inspiration from studying through the pandemic by calling his final major project “Time Out In Nature” – an illustrative campaign to encourage young people to visit nature reserves. He achieved a 2:1 and the graduation ceremony takes place on April 29.

Meanwhile, Jonathan has been building a portfolio as a freelance illustrator, including being commissioned to work on a book called My Brother Tom Has Superpowers by Harriet Axbey, a teacher and PhD student at Durham University, who is also autistic. The story is about an autistic girl who thinks her brother, Tom, has superpowers because he can read minds but she discovers that everyone has special abilities.

Jonathan has now teamed up again with me for a book called Zizu Loses His Stripes, about a little zebra whose jungle adventure demonstrates the power of friendship. The book was commissioned by Teesside businessman Maaz Rahman and his partner Nicci Knight, who run Zizu’s Day Care and Learning Centre, in Middlesbrough town centre.

The book will be published in June and sales will help support The Zizu’s Foundation, which is dedicated to helping fund early-years education for children who might otherwise not get that opportunity.

To cap it all, Jonathan has now started a full-time job as a Digital Marketing Executive, working for Zizu’s Day Care and Learning Centre as well as a digital transformation agency, Dynamo Kings, also run by Maaz Rahman. The job includes an apprenticeship delivered by Learning Curve.

“I never believed so much could happen,” says Jonathan. “There can’t be many people who, before they’ve graduated, have already had two books published, with another on the way.”

The North East Autism Society was where it all started really. They gave me the confidence to go to university and to realise I could achieve my dream of being a professional illustrator, and I can’t thank them enough for believing in me.

“And to get a job with lovely people like Maaz and Nicci, who are so supportive and flexible in also allowing me to carry on with my freelance work, is amazing.”

Maaz says Jonathan was offered the job because of his “meticulous eye for detail and creative spark”.

“There's so much talent in the world, but because of the society we live in, a lot of it goes unnoticed because people are different or neurodiverse. Jonathan is a perfect example of someone who deserves an opportunity just like anyone else and we are absolutely thrilled to have him part of our team," he added.

And Jonathan has this message: “Employers have to understand autism more and make work more accessible. Autistic people have different skills and abilities, and they should be helped to do what they want to do – and to know they are valid and supported.”

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