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.

“As a mum you dream of the day when your little girl looks you in the eyes and says, ‘mama’ for the first time. But it wasn’t until this year, after accessing the services from the North East Autism Society, that I heard my daughter call me mum.”

Jean Garner’s daughter, Alicia, came to NEAS in August 2013. She joined Thornhill Park School in Sunderland and also moved into one of the society’s residential children’s homes.

Born with Downs Syndrome, which was diagnosed early, mum, Jean, explains how difficult the years have been, struggling to understand her daughter’s behaviour before she was diagnosed as autistic.

“It took us a really long time to find the right environment for Alicia. We found out early on about her Down’s Syndrome but from an early age I knew there was something else making her behave the way she did. It was extremely difficult for us as a family because we felt we weren’t being listened to. It took a long time for Alicia to be to diagnosed with autism.

"Her whole Life Care Plan involved school, local authority and NHS respite. Across each of these services there were numerous members of staff involved and in her old school she had a 3:1 staff ratio with her at all times due to her extreme behaviour.

Alicia can’t speak so because she is non-verbal and finds it difficult to communicate, she would at times lash out and be violent towards others. It’s hard on a family, you know, I mean, it’s very difficult to help her when she’s frustrated, and she would sometimes even harm herself.

“It was heart-breaking because it wasn’t her fault; it was because she couldn’t cope in her own environment and it was her way of communicating.”

Getting the right support for Alicia was a long and frustrating process for the Garner family.

Alicia enjoying activities at Thornhill Park School and Belford
Jean continued, “For a long time we felt we were constantly getting nowhere when it came to getting the right help for our daughter and feeling like we were being judged simply because we couldn’t cope. Things got so bad that Alicia was seen by a psychiatrist but again this left us frustrated. We had to fight to get a second opinion and by then we were at breaking point.

Alicia really suffered by not having the right services to meet her needs and this had a huge impact on our family life. Alicia’s sister missed out on the attention she needed but at that time I couldn’t ignore the fact Alicia needed us too. I’m not going to lie, it was a real strain on our family but we wanted the best for our daughter.

But Alicia’s life did begin to transform when she started at Thornhill Park School and moved into Belford Children’s Home.

“We haven’t looked back,” said Jean. “They have helped her tremendously. They are giving her the specialist support she needs and I can honestly say she is a different young girl. This year was the first time she has ever said Mum! When she started her previous school her vocabulary stopped and has now started to return. She’s still got a long way to go but the progress she has made is amazing.

I would never have thought she would be able to achieve what she has. These may seem tiny little things to someone else but for us they’re huge steps. The staff team at Belford have had a huge impact on her life, and to us as a family. Alicia is now so happy and getting so much out of life.

“We cannot thank the team at Belford enough for their continuous support; they’re angels – I’m sure of it - and we see them as our second family. The North East Autism Society has improved Alicia’s quality of life and I really believe she is now on her way to being able to fulfil her true potential.”

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