Julie McGonigal can hardly believe the transformation in her foster son James Pittilla since he moved to Thornhill Park School seven years ago.

Before the move, Julie would drop James off at another school each morning but, before she’d even arrived home, there’d almost always be a phone call asking her to go back and get him.

Thornhill Park made a huge difference though, and now, at the age of 19, James is about to graduate from the Sunderland school, run by the North East Autism Society (NEAS), and has been offered an internship with the NHS.

“The schools that James attended just couldn’t cope with him,” says Julie, who has had James in her family since he was seven-years-old. “He started in a mainstream school before moving to a special-needs school at the age of nine, but he could never settle.

He hadn’t been diagnosed and could be very, very disruptive. The staff just couldn’t cope with him, and would be straight on the phone asking me to come back and get him.

When James was finally diagnosed as autistic, he was also diagnosed with OCD, ADHD and anxiety disorder.

James Pittilla at Thornhill Park School

Things got so bad that, at one point, it was decided to put James in respite care for six weeks.

“I hated it,” confesses Julie, who also looks after three other special-needs children. “I didn’t like James being away and I wanted him at home, but we all needed a break.”

When James came home, it was clear that he was going to struggle in another special-needs school, and a place was offered at Thornhill Park School in 2010, which provides specialist education for children and young people aged 3-19.

It has been amazing. The school has brought out the best in James, and the staff have been absolutely brilliant with him. He is much more confident and takes responsibility for his own actions, which he didn’t do before. You wouldn’t think it was the same boy.

James has become his own person and Julie has seen him grow into a wonderful, caring young man, with skills in cooking, cleaning, gardening, and a particular interest in health and safety.

Both James and Julie have learned a lot with the school, and Julie believes that the smaller class sizes have done a lot to bring out the best in him.

Things could have gone badly wrong when Julie’s husband, Paddy, died. Paddy was not only James’ father figure, he was James’ best friend. His foster father never saw the autism as a barrier – he always encouraged James to be the best he could.

“James went into shock when Paddy died,” Julie explains, “but the staff at Thornhill were amazing. They allowed him his own space to work through it, as well as providing him with one-to-one support.

If he just wanted to be quiet in the sensory room, that was fine. If he had been at school anywhere else, he wouldn’t have been able to go back. But the staff at Thornhill Park knew exactly what to do.

Not only has James matured beyond all Julie’s expectations, he has become quite an accomplished artist and gained a B grade in his GCSE Art exam. He used his art portfolio, entitled ‘Wish You Were Here’, to pay tribute to his late foster father, creating a series of paintings capturing the favourite places he shared with his ‘best friend’ Paddy McGonigal.

Julie, her sister, her mum and James’ foster sister Shania, were invited to a private viewing of James’ portfolio work.

The paintings are a lovely tribute to Paddy, but also to the relationship they shared. We all miss him. This project has helped James express the feelings he has. I’m very touched by it.

To say thank you to the Macmillan nurses who helped Paddy in the end stages of lung cancer, James is selling copies of his artwork, through the NEAS online shop, to raise funds for the cancer support charity.

Thornhill Park School Head Teacher, Christine Cave says: “James expresses himself though fine art. Having lost his foster father, James has used art as means of coping with his loss. The grieving process continues to be worked through with James expressing his emotions and his reflections on past times with Paddy through his paintings and poignant story in a series of postcards written to Paddy in memory of the good times they spent together.

James with foster mum, Julie

This year, James along with his other classmates has been heavily involved in the planning and design of the schools new garden project. Christine adds: “James has been an influential member of the student council, which enables the students to voice their opinions about projects within school.”

“James has taken real pride in the garden project because he has seen his ideas unfold. He is now looking forward to meeting the funders at an exclusive Garden Party to celebrate the opening of the gardens at the end of the summer term.”

James also has a social conscience, and does voluntary litter-picking around the estate where he lives. If he sees a street light that’s out, or any fly tipping, he’ll report it to North Tyneside Council.

While at Thornhill, he has been working on an allotment, which encouraged an interest in gardening. He bought himself a petrol mower, and now has a gardening round in the neighbourhood, helping residents to keep their grass cut and tidy.

As Julie proudly says: “A lot of people around here think a lot of him.”

As he approaches the end of his time at Thornhill, James can be proud of the progress that he’s made, which has given him the confidence that has led to the placement with the NHS. It is a new initiative which will give James one day a week of study, and the other four days working as a hospital porter and delivering the medical post.

For Julie, it’s a day she could never have dreamed of when she was trudging back to school to get James.

But, as she likes to point out, in all the time that James has been at Thornhill Park School, she has never received one phone call to come and take him home.

Find out more about Thornhill Park School.