“For four long years I felt wretched, but I have had three happy, happy years seeing my son so happy.”

These are the words of Sharon Davison whose son, James, 19, has been attending the NEAS Aycliffe School as a day student since June 2014.

Prior to joining Aycliffe School, James had been struggling through special needs school, which Sharon felt was failing to meet his needs.

James had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at the age of two, with profound delayed learning following tests to check his hearing.

“From about the age of 18 months we were worried that James was deaf,” explained Sharon. “He wouldn’t look at us or acknowledge us when we came into the room. Although he had started speaking, that seemed to be deteriorating, so we asked for a hearing test.”

James Davison at Aycliffe School

The diagnosis was earth-shattering for Sharon, who felt overwhelmed, and that she had to start learning all over again.

Although his formal education started in a special needs school, Sharon had heard of an American home-based learning programme, Son-Rise, specifically designed for children and adults with autism, so, for four years, she home-schooled him.

When James was eight, he returned to state schooling in a special needs primary school, but Sharon still felt his needs weren’t being met.

At age 11, he moved on to a special needs secondary school, and that’s when the four worst years of Sharon’s life began.

“He did have a statement that specified what interventions he needed, but, although I kept getting promises, they were not being addressed,” recalls Sharon. “James was so unhappy. He would go to school looking grey, and come home looking greyer.

“His behaviour was becoming increasingly aggressive and challenging, and he seemed almost depressed.”

The family was at the stage where James moving on to a sixth-form unit was being discussed, when Sharon thought: “I can’t do this to him anymore. Enough is enough.”

Fortunately, she was speaking to another parent whose daughter had autism, and she advised Sharon to go and look at NEAS Aycliffe School.

I just knew that it was exactly what James needed. It ticked every box. It was a perfect environment for him and offered a specialist autism provision.

Sharon went “hell for leather” to get a place for James, and he is now coming to the end of what she describes as “an incredible three years.”

Although she was warned that there might be a difficult transition period, Sharon says that she very quickly saw positive changes in James and that he settled very quickly. He started with a week’s trial, and would come home laughing and giggling, and want to go back the next day.

Sharon can’t speak highly enough of the staff at the school.

The staff at Aycliffe are so special. They have belief in the young people and they want them to overcome their obstacles. They look for ways to help the students achieve their potential.

They are very caring and patient and they concentrate on abilities, not limitations. They support the students and the families in all sorts of ways. I know that James will flourish. He senses that the staff want to help him and he rises to it.

Sharon believes that the environment is also key to helping James to do well.

“It is a very calm atmosphere, and the young people are not being over-stimulated before they settle down to learning,” she explains. “Additional therapies, such as sensory - head and foot massage, and speech and language, act as a foundation to support the learning.

James Davison at Aycliffe School

“And if James becomes over-stimulated by an activity, he can run off his energy in the play park. Sometimes he just needs a break to self-regulate.”

James has an individual education plan that is carefully monitored with regular feedback to his family. He has an appraisal at the end of each term which highlights his achievements and sets future targets.

Sharon also gets a weekly photograph showing an activity that James has been involved in, and she gets a weekly letter that James helps to compile.

“As a parent, it’s fantastic to see him looking so focused on his task and so happy,” she says. “The school keeps in touch to tell me how James has been, but they also want to know how he is at home. It’s a two-way support network.

“It’s good to know that someone has detailed knowledge of my son, and they will tell me. We talk about the good and the bad.”

Seeing what James is doing at school also encourages Sharon to try new things with him at home.

“The school has given James a lot more opportunities and he enjoys life more now. They encourage him to make choices, and to be more independent. He does things now I never would have expected him to do – like shopping, and trampolining!”

The next stage for James, Sharon hopes, is to move on to an adult NEAS facility where he can continue to learn life and social skills within a community environment.

“Life skills are just as important as academic skills and James has not finished learning yet,” says Sharon.

Find out more information about our Education Services

Or come and meet the team at our Open Evening on 18th July, 4-7pm and visit our North East Centre for Autism.