The former chair of the North East Autism Society has received a Special Recognition award for the 21 years he dedicated to the charity.

Gavin Bestford, 73, who stepped down earlier this year, was recognised by the County Durham Together Awards which celebrate unsung heroes in the region.

Gavin first came into contact with NEAS when his autistic son Alex was referred to the charity’s school. He became a trustee in 2002 and took over as chair in 2005.

Under his stewardship, the Society grew from a handful of services and 250 staff to more than 60 sites and 1,200 staff providing lifeline services across the North East.

Gavin, who comes from Crook, County Durham, paid tribute to the charity as he accepted his award at the ceremony at Hardwick Hall Hotel, near Sedgefield.

He said: “This is a fabulous surprise. I’m not special, I’m just a guy with an autistic son. Getting this award is down to all those involved with NEAS - the staff, children, adults in their care.

They’re what makes it special. I’m just a cog in the wheel.

He said his aim at NEAS was always to provide “the best services, delivered by the best people, to create the best lives possible” for autistic and neurodivergent people like his son Alex, now 36, who is still being cared for by the charity in a supported living home.

John Phillipson, the charity’s CEO, says that Gavin richly deserved his award for his decades of tireless work.

“Gavin’s made a massive contribution, partly born out of being a parent, but because he’s naturally a passionate advocate on behalf of every service user and their family.”

The County Durham Together Awards are a partnership between Durham County Council and The Northern Echo to celebrate the region’s unsung heroes. Other awards included Business of the Year, Visitor Economy Award, Public Service Award and Carer of the Year.