Dismissed as a young and inexperienced mum, Leigh flagged up concerns over her daughter’s developmental milestones but felt her worries fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until years later, when her second child demonstrated similar traits, that a health visitor stepped in and Leigh was finally able to get support for her autistic child.

Gareth did similar things to my daughter, at about the same age, but because I had been blamed for having poor parenting skills before, I put my concerns to one side.

But the day after Gareth’s two-year health check, the health visitor phoned Leigh to express her concerns. She explained that she thought Gareth may be autistic and should have an assessment.

“Once I had a name for it, I started doing some research,” says Leigh. “When I found out about autistic traits I thought, ‘Yes that’s Gareth and he does all of the things on the list’. I went into the assessment knowing that he was going to get a diagnosis.

After 15 years of being told that my daughter’s challenges were my fault, to be told that your son has exactly the same issues, and there’s a reason for it – it was a huge relief, but I was angry at the same time.

Unhappy with the mainstream school system, Leigh spent the next four years teaching Gareth at home and says he thrived for a number of years.

“He loved learning and his reading age was two years ahead of where it should have been,” she remembers. “He went from being almost entirely non-verbal – having only three or four words at three-years-old – to having an explosion of vocabulary.”

But, as he got older, supporting her son with his sensory and social needs became a lot more challenging. Where, previously, they’d been able to do group activities, everything just stopped almost overnight. Leigh says it was like Gareth just shut down and, at home, he suddenly started exhibiting a lot of anger.

In asking the local authority for help Leigh was told that Gareth would need to go to school if he was to get the support he needed.

Because of his academic ability, he was earmarked for a mainstream school placement but Leigh knew that wouldn’t be right for him. And, although they lived near three SEN schools, Gareth’s educational abilities meant he wasn’t offered at a place at any of them.

“When he was six and in school on a part-time basis, it was too much for him,” says Leigh. “He could be aggressive toward teachers and students, and he would spend the majority of time in isolation with only one adult.”

Despite her son loving learning, such a big change in Gareth’s behaviour prompted the local authority to consider more specialist schooling.

Leigh adds: “Although the school didn’t want to give up on him, they started gathering the evidence needed to get him the right placement. It was reported by the local authority that the school was managing with Gareth, but we didn’t want them to be managing his behaviour, we wanted him to be happy at school.”

Then news came in that a new autism-specific school was opening on Teesside where staff would have specialist training and a passion for autistic and neurodivergent children and young people.

From the minute he started at the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre he loved it. I think it’s because the people there listened to him.

They were just amazing, and so accepting of what he wanted. They let him have control and freedom.

Leigh proudly says that Gareth now finishes all of his work and asks for more. He goes looking for the other children to ask them to play games with him, and is taking part in PE lessons – something he’s never done before. He is also happy sitting down with the other children to eat in the dinner hall, and hasn’t once had to be removed from the classroom.

Leigh adds that Gareth, now seven, can’t wait to go to the centre and stands at the gate each morning waiting for his taxi.

I’ve never known anything like it – It’s astounding. It’s like a different world for Gareth. He’s coming back and telling me what he’s been doing, bringing back photos of what he’s done and models he’s built. It’s like a huge weight has been lifted.

“Gareth has the placement I knew he needed all along, and within weeks we saw the difference.

“It has been such a revelation for Gareth – that school can be what he thought it would be. It has changed his world. And if the local authority allow it, I would like him to stay at Mackenzie Thorpe until he’s 19.”

Find out more about Mackenzie Thorpe Centre.