AN MP has praised a North-East charity for setting the national agenda for the care of autistic people.

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott paid tribute to the North East Autism Society (NEAS) today (March 13) as she officially opened a specialist school dedicated to helping autistic children achieve their full potential.

The MP said: “People know about this organisation around the country. You have set the path for a lot of good things that have happened nationally, and you should be proud of that. You are a shining example.”

The opening of Thornhill Park School, in Sunderland, coincides with NEAS celebrating its 40th anniversary of pioneering care for autistic people and those with other neurodiverse conditions.

The Society was started in Sunderland by a group of parents with autistic children, and now provides education, care, employment services, short breaks and family support for autistic children, young people and adults.

Mrs Elliott said there was a growing demand for the work of the Society and described the new school as “fantastic”.

“There are 45 young people here now but there is provision for a lot more and this will become a thriving place,” she added.

Existing Thornhill Park pupils have been relocated from an older site to the fully refurbished and modernised new school, which offers bespoke programmes to maximise the education of each child.

NEAS Chief Executive John Phillipson paid tribute to the “very brave” group of parents who re-mortgaged their homes 40 years to set up the charity when there was no provision for autistic children.

One of the pioneering parents, Paul Shattock, was a guest of honour at the opening ceremony and Mr Phillipson said: “We would not be where we are without him.”

He added: “This school offers brilliant facilities and there are a lot of people here today who helped us to get it over the line. They say if something is worth having, it’s worth waiting for, and that is certainly the case here.

“We try to see beyond labels, and to nurture the growth and development of those in our care, and it is a great honour to support children in that way. This is a great place for that kind of work to take place.”

Mr Phillipson also paid tribute to Mrs Elliott for “working tirelessly” in helping the Society to get ministerial approval to buy the building from Sunderland Borough Council. He also thanked the local authority for its “invaluable help”.

(Ltr) Julie Elliott MP, John Phillipson, Christine Cave, Cllr David Snowdon, Diane Snowdon

Mr Phillipson went on to praise Chris Dempster, Director of Education for NEAS, and Head Teacher Christine Cave for their efforts in making the move to the new school a seamless transition.

The Mayor of Sunderland Councillor David Snowdon underlined the value of NEAS, not just as an organisation providing dedicated care for 40 years, but as a significant local employer, with 1,000 members of staff.

“Organisations like this make us proud to be from the North-East,” he said.

The civic dignitaries and Mr Phillipson were helped to plant a time capsule in the school garden by three of the Thornhill Park School pupils, Kieran, Kate and Coree.