From his parents’ perspective Daniel Richardson never seemed happy in school – even nursery posed problems.

In primary school it felt like a daily battle just getting him into the classroom, and by Year two Daniel was visibly unhappy at school.

He would threaten to leave, try and break free from the classroom, refuse to come back in after playtime and would even push over the furniture. The school labelled him ‘naughty’.

"We didn’t know anything about autism, so we just accepted that he was naughty," mum Kelly says.

The toll of the daily fight to get Daniel to school started to affect Kelly and she became depressed. And, while they did manage to access some key worker support to help them, things took a worrying turn.

“Finally, we took him to see a doctor because he kept saying that he wanted to hurt himself. He would draw a picture of a little boy, saying ‘that’s me’, and then another picture of a little boy lying in a coffin, saying that’s how he wants to be,” says Kelly.

I sought help but even mental health services would say it was normal for a child of that age to say things like that. It was such a struggle, but our key worker was adamant, saying: ‘I’m not going to get off the phone until they give you an appointment’.

A teacher at Daniel’s school felt sure he was displaying autistic traits, but the school struggled to support him.

Their solution was to put him in isolation in a separate classroom, and this suited Daniel for a while. But then the school was taken over by a trust and the class was disbanded.

“They introduced a very strict regime, and Daniel was constantly in trouble. All he knew was that when he went into school, he was going to be in a room on his own,” says Kelly.

It was absolutely heartbreaking knowing that we had no choice but to drag him in, knowing that he was going to be put in isolation. He’d eat his lunch by himself in the room, and he’d have no time outside which he needs because he has ADHD, so needs time to run around outside and burn off some energy.

Eventually, Daniel was moved to another school that offered some support. Kelly says this went well for a few weeks, however it wasn’t long before Daniel started trying to leave again.

Things were coming to a head at the school, with Daniel falling behind academically, all the while breaking down and crying, begging to be put in isolation. Until, finally, Daniel was diagnosed as autistic at the age of six.

The school realised he needed specialist provision and pushed to get him an Education and Health Care Plan, which detailed what help he needed. However Kelly and Dave were concerned that if Daniel went to a school for children with learning disabilities, it would hold him back.

“The school agreed that an environment like that wouldn’t be helpful, as he was so bright. We knew about the NEAS school in Aycliffe, which we thought might suit him, but travelling was an issue,” says Dave. “Then we heard that they were opening the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre in Southbank, and we put a request on the EHCP.

“We just wanted to give him a chance to achieve his potential.”

Dave got the number of the school from NEAS Head Office and phoned the principal, Tracey Train, who invited them in for a look around and a chat.

Daniel, now eight, got a place, starting two weeks before the October half term, and the change has been astonishing.

Kelly says: “It’s actually heartbreaking to have watched him for all those years – having him pried off me to go to a school that wasn’t supporting his needs – for him to now turn round saying, ‘I don’t want to have half term, I want to keep going to school.’

When we were driving him there in the first week, he’d say, ‘Come on, I don’t want to be late. I don’t want to miss one second of school’. It’s a totally different way of life now.

Another breakthrough is that Daniel feels he can talk to the teachers and will be understood.

“He used to say, ‘Nobody understands me; no-one understands my brain’, but he’s started talking to the teachers about how his brain works, which he says he can’t do with me and his dad.

“Obviously, we try to understand, and have done some courses, but it is still hard, and it’s different being a parent.

Kelly says that Daniel doesn’t believe he is doing any learning because it is all incorporated into his day, and is made fun.

"After the first week, they showed me some of his pictures and he’d written, ‘I love this school’ over and over again," Kelly says. "I get emotional when he says he loves school because that’s all I ever wanted to hear.

All you ever want in life is for your child to be happy, and NEAS has done that for us, which in turn has helped with my anxiety and depression.

Dave agrees, and adds: “Kelly’s like a new person and that’s reflected in our home life – it’s much happier and less stressful.”

Find out more about Mackenzie Thorpe Centre.