“It’s lovely to have my girl back.” These are the heartfelt words of Naomi, speaking about her 13-year-old daughter, Shannon.

After years of fighting to have her daughter assessed so she could attend a specialist school, Shannon started at the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre in 2020, and mum says she’s like a different child.

Naomi says that even when Shannon was quite young there were tell-tale signs that Shannon was experiencing the world differently to other children her age.

“At 18 months old, she would have tantrums, like any child, but hers seemed completely over the top. She was very particular about her food. She wouldn’t eat certain foods if it was cut the wrong way. She was quite intense with things like that.”

Shannon was meeting all her developmental milestones except for speech, as she wouldn’t speak to anyone but close family. She also became anxious at nursery, where she was amongst a lot of other children.  

As this was Naomi’s first child, she admits that she wasn’t sure what to expect but seeing her daughter anxious was enough to worry her. When she reached the age of four, she asked the doctor for advice.

“They just said she was fine,” recalls Naomi, “but I knew there was more to it than that. We also took her to CAMHS (Child and adolescent Mental Health Service) a few times, but they said she was just quirky.”

For the next seven years, Naomi tried to get help for Shannon, but her worries kept getting dismissed.

By the time Shannon was in Year Four, she was desperately unhappy and refusing to go to school, so Naomi decided to have her assessed privately and it was confirmed that Shannon was autistic.

Although I knew she was autistic, the diagnoses was still a shock. I remember feeling really let down, thinking, ‘why did these people not believe us?’  It was particularly awful for Shannon because, by that point, her mental health had deteriorated. She was going to school, but she wouldn’t eat or drink anything while she was there, and I kept being told that she was fine.

“Some days we took her to school and she wouldn’t go in. Once, as we walked away, Shannon said, ‘I’m sorry, mum. I’m sorry I can’t go in’. And I thought, she’s not just doing this, she can’t deal with it. We need something else now.”

When Shannon left primary school in Year Six, Naomi petitioned the Local Authority to fund a place for her at a specialist school.

Their request went to tribunal, and it took 18 months for them to get a date – which was changed three times. Shannon did not attend school for all of that time.

I had called NEAS for information about schools, and then in February 2020, Shannon was invited to the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre for an assessment.

“I was ecstatic to get that call, but, on the same day, I received an email from the authority saying it was a mistake and she was not meant to have the assessment.”

“I was beside myself. I messaged them and I just thought you cannot do this to a parent – it’s just cruel. Shannon had been out of school for so long.

Thankfully the assessment was allowed to ahead and Shannon was offered a place at the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre. But, while Naomi felt vindicated, it was an anxious time for Shannon.

“The closer it got to her starting at Mackenzie Thorpe, the more unwell she became,” says Naomi. “Even after she started, there were a few days when she was sick with anxiety, but the school has been very good at gaining her trust.”

Shannon was one of the first pupils to start at the centre when it opened in September 2020. Although the first couple of weeks took some adjusting to, Naomi says that her daughter is now much happier in herself.

Previously, I felt like I had to check on everything the school was doing because I had no confidence in them. With Mackenzie Thorpe, I feel like I can just leave them to it because I trust their ways, and that they’re experienced enough to deal with whatever comes up.

Shannon started attending for three half-days a week, but Naomi is hoping that will slowly increase, at Shannon’s pace, so that she will eventually attend full-time.

“It’s been a long two years waiting for Shannon to be settled, and it’s a relief that she is now. And it’s really good for my peace of mind, that I can just relax a bit,” Naomi says.

“I desperately wanted her to be offered a place. It’s not just for now, it’s for the future. NEAS is very good at helping children and young people towards independent adulthood, and the ideal would be for her to stay until she’s 19.”

Find out more about Mackenzie Thorpe Centre.