Thornhill Park School

Thornhill Park School is an independent specialist school based in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear for pupils aged 4-19

Our mission is to work together inspiring, supporting, celebrating and equipping autistic and neurodiverse children, young people and adults.

At 20-weeks pregnant Angela Ganning was sent home from her hospital appointment with a weekend to decide whether she would continue carrying her child. 

Tests revealed an almost certain prediction that her daughter would have Down Syndrome and other information gathered from scans suggested further complications still.

“But she was still my bairn,” said mum of four Angela from Murton, “how could I decide that? At the end of the day the baby growing in me was mine regardless of what doctors said. So we continued… and she was born. She was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. Not once did I see a disability. All I saw was Leonnie. My little girl. It was love at first sight.”

And Angela’s devotion to her daughter has never waned.

When doctor’s revealed that Leonnie was also autistic, and with other siblings at home, it became clear that single mum Angela would need extra support.

I remember my mum saying to me, ‘Angela, you need help. She’s not sleeping, you’re not coping… it’s getting too hard.’ My heart was broken at the prospect of needing someone to help me let alone the thought of her perhaps needing residential care. But that was before I knew about the North East Autism Society, and before I saw how much they would love her.

 As a small child Leonnie would struggle to sleep at night but would fall asleep during the day. An operation to repair a hole in her heart and a change of medication meant the family could go weeks without sleep as her rest and sleep patterns became unpredictable switching between overactivity and exhaustion. 

 “There was a Christmas where I was up for three weeks straight. I don’t think I took her younger brother Declan to the park until he was about six because everything revolved around Leonnie,” added Angela. “She also has dysphagia which means she struggles to swallow. Feeding was an issue too. It broke my heart to meet with social workers and say I wasn’t managing but at the end of the day I just wanted what was best for Leonnie.” 

In 2008 Leonnie moved into one of the North East Autism Society’s bespoke children’s homes, age 10 and also began attending Thornhill Park School in Sunderland, also run by the Society.

Providing around-the-clock personalised care tailored to her needs at home and at school meant a bright future for Leonnie and peace of mind for her family.

Support worker Oliver Jukes has worked with Leonnie since she arrived at Wallingford Children’s Home.

I just remember this little girl who would fall asleep all the time – she isn’t verbal, and doesn’t sign, so to understand Leonnie you have to really, really get to know her by spending time with her. We are all going to really miss her.

Now an adult, Leonnie is transitioning out of the North East Autism Society care and education into new adult provision closer to her family home. The staff team at her home planned a farewell party for her friends, family and Society staff.

Angela Head, who also worked closely with Leonnie, said: “We are so, so proud of Leonnie. She’s come so far. From a little girl who would swipe things out the way out of impatience, to being someone who is so much more independent, someone who loves her music and clapping… someone who absolutely loves scary theme park rides… a girl who has friends and an absolutely beautiful relationship with her mum. What can I say? Of course we will miss her. She’s like family.

“Although we probably won’t miss the hardcore rave music that she loves!”

As well as her going away party, Leonnie also took part in her school prom before she left.

She was beautiful – and despite her usually not liking to be dressed up like that she kept her dress on and had a lovely time. It was nice for me too. Most mams wouldn’t get to be at their daughter’s prom but Thornhill Park invited us to be there too.

“When she was little I never knew if we would ever get to have days like this. I’m very grateful, and thank you will never ever be enough to say, but I am so thankful – we all are – for the love and care given to Leonnie. As a mum you never think the heartbreak of having to put your child in care will get easier. But it does when the people who care for her love her like we do. Thank you NEAS. From the bottom of my heart.”

Find out more about our children's services.