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.

“I can’t help your daughter. I can only help children who I believe I can make a difference with.” Those were the crushing words given to mum Mandy Winter about her daughter Charlotte, who was diagnosed autistic as a toddler.

“I know that was only one person’s opinion,” says mum-of-two Mandy. “But it broke my heart. Thank God for the people at the North East Autism Society who have always believed my Charlotte has hope. When I’ve struggled to see a future for her they’ve always come up with another idea to get the most out of her.”

Charlotte Hunt, now 18, was assessed for autism when she was just two-years-old.

Mandy explains: “She was a great baby. She didn’t cry a lot and because I already had her brother I was comparing the two and I didn’t really notice any differences. Except for what I thought was a hearing problem.

"I could make a big noise behind her and she wouldn’t react. I could call her name and there would be no response. But if she was in one room and there was music in another she would start dancing.

I think in my heart I knew there was something going on then but I kept desperately wishing and hoping that it would just be her hearing. I remember thinking, ‘if it’s her hearing we can fix it with grommets… if it’s something else… I don’t know what I will do.’

To get answers Mandy was asked to take Charlotte to see a paediatric specialist.

“I sat with one doctor and another played with Charlotte on the floor. Within two hours we left knowing that she had autism. She was two-and-a-half and I wondered what the future held for her.

“I went home and straight to the library but back then there wasn’t a lot of information available. I got one book out, that has now been widely discredited, suggesting children with autism ‘become’ like that due to a lack of love from their parents. I knew that wasn’t true. I would have gone to the ends of the earth for my kids. I was a stay at home mum living every day just for them. But it was hard to get answers and the help I desperately needed.”

Charlotte was able to access a nursery for children with similar needs and when it was time to begin her education she was given a place at a local special education school.

Charlotte Hunt

Mandy said: “It was fine at first but as she got older it became more difficult to help Charlotte. Her behaviour at times could be very hard to handle. She would often hit out and even scratch others. Not to mention the fact she hated wearing normal clothes.”

Due to sensory issues Charlotte didn’t like the feel of clothes on her skin. The only things she would wear had to be tight.

“It seems funny if you tell the story that your daughter would eventually only wear a swimming costume but I was at my wit’s end. Eventually I was sending her to school in her swim suit just waiting for a phone call about her behaviour.

It was a really hard time. It wasn’t as if I could sit her down and reason with her. Along with her autism is epilepsy and severe learning difficulties. She struggles with communication as well so I was at a loss how to make her happy and settled.

“That was when one of the professionals involved with Charlotte told me she couldn’t be helped. I was heartbroken.”

When Charlotte was 10, it was suggested to Mandy that Charlotte may benefit from some time in a special residential unit in Prudhoe.

“After just a few weeks the difference in Charlotte was amazing. They worked really hard with her to assess her sensory needs and helped her with her clothing issues. She was so happy and calm. It made me wonder if there was more help like that available. It was then that the doctor from the unit referred Charlotte to the North East Autism Society.

When I saw the school in Sunderland where Charlotte would go, I couldn’t believe it. It was fantastic. Facilities were good but what really struck me was the staff. They were all so enthusiastic and so knowledgeable about autism. I remember thinking that Charlotte wouldn’t be a burden there.

When Charlotte was 11 she was eventually awarded the care package needed to secure a place at Thornhill Park School and also Braemar Children’s residential home, both in Sunderland.

Mandy added: “My mother’s instinct was conflicted because although I didn’t want her to go I knew it was the best place for her. When she turns 19 she will be leaving children’s services and we are just praying that she will given the right care package to make sure she stays with the Society.”

Now, a vibrant, confident teenager, mum believes the difference in her daughter is ‘miraculous.’

From a little girl who was aggressive and so anxious she couldn’t even wear clothes, to this bubbly teenager who can visit me at home each weekend, who loves dancing to her music and can even go to the ice cream van on her own. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

“At her last school report I learned that Charlotte has been making shabby chic furniture as part of her work experience programme. I had to read it twice because it was more than I could ever have imagined for her. The staff at her school and in her home love her like one of their own. What more could I ask for? Really, the difference in my girl is miraculous.”

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