“It was touch and go as I lay there in intensive care. But in the moments where I did know what was going on, I knew the one thing I didn’t need to worry about was Robert, because he was with the staff from Short Breaks.”

When Pat Bathgate developed pneumonia last year she ended up in hospital for almost a month. With a 19-year-old daughter with learning difficulties to care for, and her husband also looking after their autistic son, Robert, the family instantly ended up under pressure.

“The school and short breaks worked together and kept Robert for the entire time," Pat says. "It was a weight off my mind. I don’t know what we would have done if they hadn’t because the doctors kept telling my husband how poorly I was. I expect he wasn’t sure what to do with himself or what to do for best. It wasn’t a nice time.”

Robert, now 18, diagnosed with autism and epilepsy as a toddler, was excluded from his school for children with special educational needs when he was 13. Thought to have ADHD as well, doctors began working with Robert again as a teenager and eventually concluded that he didn’t have the attention deficit disorder or need to be on medication to help the condition.

They weaned him off his tablets and he started improving, then Thornhill Park School was mentioned to us. I’ll be honest I wasn’t sure what to think at first because the school is in a great big old fashioned building. I was wrong to be worried. The teachers, the assistants and the head mistress are brilliant. Really brilliant. The change in Robert has been amazing. It just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Despite Robert accessing the North East Autism Society’s school services, he remains at home with his parents. Mum is the registered carer for Samantha, and dad, David, is Robert’s carer.

“It can be really hard at times,” said Pat. “I’m not going to pretend it’s not. Sometimes I can get worried or even a bit panicky, which was why our social worker suggested we try some respite care for Robert. I didn’t even know what that was, and I hated it when they first organised it.”

Initially social workers organised weekend respite provision and placed Robert with a family.

It was all organised for us. They came and took Robert on the Friday and we didn’t know how he was or where he was until they brought him back. I hated it and it made me really anxious. It turned out he had been staying just round the corner. When I asked why they couldn’t tell me where he was the lady just said, ‘we don’t want parents at the door at midnight’. I could understand it but the whole thing made me worse, not better. It wasn’t good for our family, because we are a really, really close family. Then we heard that NEAS had a short breaks service for children.

Robert Bathgate - Childrens Short Breaks

Based at Newton Aycliffe, on the same site as NEAS's North East Centre for Autism, Robert then started having Short Breaks with the team there.

“It was absolutely marvellous,” Pat added. “The buildings were beautiful, the whole place was lovely and the staff were just amazing too. I would call every morning and see how he was and they wouldn’t just take the call they reassured me that it was okay to call, after all he is my son.

Since then we’ve seen it as a bit of a lifeline to be honest. Although we didn’t realise just how much of a lifeline it would be until I ended up in hospital.

And while Pat was in hospital her own treatment allowed her the rare chance to experience life in the same way as Robert.

She said: “I had to have a tracheotomy and so I couldn’t speak for a while. It was okay when I could write things down for David and my dad, but when I was still too ill it was awful. I would try to speak and nothing would come out. I could understand everything that was going on but they couldn’t understand me. I remember thinking to myself, ‘this is what it must be like for our Robert.’

I had never really understood before why he gets frustrated and can act out, but when you can’t communicate the way you want to it must be awful. It’s no wonder he struggles sometimes. I’m glad I got the chance to see the world the way he does.

Now recovering from her illness Pat wants to thank everyone involved in helping Robert have the best possible life.

“I never honestly thought Robert could succeed in life. I just couldn’t imagine it because he was hard to handle and people at his first school just couldn’t understand him. When he came to NEAS he ended up with teachers who loved him. They are helping him learn and do well and we sometimes just can’t believe how much he has improved.

I can’t thank short breaks enough for what they do for my family, and for what they did in our time of need. They’re like an extension of our family and we are so grateful.

“Both services together have changed our lives really and I’m just hoping when Robert is classed as an adult he can continue on with the North East Autism Society.”

Find out more about Children's Short Breaks