It is with great sadness that we report the death of our former president, Sheela Ramm.

As the founding member of Thornhill Park School as well as adult services including Thornbeck College, it is only right that we pay tribute to a woman whose dedication and commitment to autism has pioneered life-changing services which impacted the lives of hundreds of children, young people and adults in the North-east.

In informing us of the sad news of his mum’s passing on July 9th, Sheela’s son, Mark Ramm, said:

My mother was a clinical innovator and loved working with the students and their families alike. She was proud to become President of the Tyne and Wear Autistic Society towards the end of her career which preceded the rebranding of the organisation, as the North East Autism Society, in 2009. Although she was unable to travel the considerable distance back to the north east of England in recent years, she continued to be happy and proud that NEAS was continuing to thrive.

Mrs. Sheela Ramm, former President of NEAS

A tribute from John Phillipson, Chief Executive Officer of NEAS, was included in Sheela’s funeral earlier this week outlining her contribution to the field of autism and a short history of how far we have come, thanks in no small part to people like Sheela.

He said: “Autism was first clearly identified as a condition as recently as 1943, in a piece of research by Leo Kanner. While people could clearly see that children with autism were different, they were a very long way from understanding why they were different. During the 1950s and 1960s Bruno Beltelhern put forward the view that the children were different because of extreme maternal deprivation. He described them as having ‘refrigerator mothers.’ One can only imagine the awful experiences of loving mothers whose children showed signs of autism back then. The view that autism might have been triggered in this way by them was very pervasive.

“In 1979 Lorna Wing and Judith Gould wrote a game changing piece of research that was to have a profound impact on the way that we understood autism, and the way that we care for and educate children with autism. Their research helped us to understand that autism arose from differences in the way people with autism think and process information.

“The research emphasised that there were neurological differences and that autism could not be explained by deprivation, neglect or refrigerator mums. In the wake of this massively influential research, schools and services for children with autism began to develop all over the UK. But pioneers of autism practice were very few and far between.

“In 1980, the nearest residential school for children with autism living in Sunderland was 394 miles to the north in Aberdeen. There were no services for children with autism in the North-east.”
It was from this relative desert of knowledge and support from which we first came to know Sheela Ramm in January 1980.
John continued: “For the first few weeks, Sheela was the only employee of the Tyne and Wear Autistic Society.

“The building that became Thornhill Park School was purchased and Sheela and her family commenced work in getting it ready for business. The school opened with two pupils. It was described by Paul Shattock, then Chair of Trustees, as “a real seat of the pants operation”. The rest as they say is history.

“By the time Sheela left the society in 1997 the school had educated a generation of children and had 83 pupils on the roll.

“It would be easy to leave it at that and say, “what a tremendous job Sheela did.” That, however, would be to give the faintest sketch of this formidable pioneer’s achievements.

“I had the pleasure of meeting Sheela briefly in 2005. We talked at length about her early days in Sunderland. She described to me how knowledge of autism and how best to support children was so limited that she would regularly ring her friends, Lorna Wing and Judith Gould, to discuss a Thornhill Park School pupil, and how they would call her for advice in return. While Wing and Gould were outstanding academics, Sheela was one of a handful of people in the country who was seen as “expert” in practice terms.

“Sheela served on several national advisory boards and worked closely with all of the universities in the north east of England. She was the “go to” person, as they would frame it today. Most, if not all of the senior managers within the north east’s local authorities knew and respected her. She worked closely with the NHS in the region and the Tyne and Wear Autistic Society had an outstanding profile, which one would have to attribute to her.”

On a personal note, John added:

The achievements set out above should be acknowledged in any celebration of Sheela’s life. But for me, the biggest accolades come not through this, but through the huge impact that her work had in improving the life of our children and their families.

I have met numerous parents who described how desperate they were when they first met Sheela. How they struggled with the behaviour of their child and wondered if they were somehow to blame. Parents who had spent years seeking to know if their child had autism. In every case they describe a confident, professional Mrs Ramm, instantly giving answers, reassurance and confidence to them. A towering pioneer who gave hope and purpose rather than vague comments and platitudes.

The innovative practice set in place by Sheela back in those early days became the foundation for the organisation that still exists today. The North East Autism Society provides a huge range of services from parent and toddler groups to after school clubs, holiday clubs and short breaks. We have two Schools and a College. We provide residential care for both children and adults and so much more. All of these services are delivered through 680 employees.

In the years since Sheela Ramm opened the front door at Thornhill Park School, we have provided services to literally thousands of children, young people and adults on the autism spectrum. I am grateful on a daily basis for the solid foundations that Sheela was able to create.

Since the news of Sheela’s death we have received countless tributes and memories shared. Without exception parents and former colleagues of Sheela’s have asked to express their good wishes to Sheela’s family and to acknowledge her huge contribution.

One parent said recently,

Back in the 80s every area needed a champion. Someone who had the knowledge, confidence, guts and professionalism to take the Authorities on. The North-east had Sheela Ramm; she had all of that and more. She was our local hero.

Chris Dempster, Director of Education for NEAS, added:

Sheela was an inspiration to me. She was calm, unflappable and her enthusiasm was infectious. I had the privilege of working with Sheela for a number of years. She was remarkable in her total commitment to providing support to individuals with autism. Her role can never be overestimated and she will most certainly never be forgotten.