A SPECIALIST school which has transformed the lives of autistic youngsters and their families has celebrated its first birthday – and is now poised for expansion.

The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, opened by the North East Autism Society at South Bank, on Teesside, marked its first anniversary with a party for pupils, parents, carers and staff.

Pupils helped make the party buffet as well as producing celebration artworks and preparing a time capsule.

Principal, Tracey Train, says: “Words can’t describe how proud I am of what’s been achieved in the first year in the midst of a global pandemic, and now the aim is to carry on the momentum.”

The school – the first of its kind on Teesside – opened with just three pupils and now has 23, with another seven due to be added by Christmas.

The school, which caters for autistic and neurodiverse youngsters between five and 19, has been named after world-famous artist, Mackenzie Thorpe, who was born in Middlesbrough and is the Society’s patron.

The school already employs 45 staff and is looking to recruit another eight teaching assistants as the number of pupils increases.

“It’s been a challenging year for everyone, but the staff have been amazing,” adds Tracey. “Covid-19 hasn’t got in the way of anyone’s determination to get the school up and running and make a real difference. It’s lovely to see how a real school community has developed so quickly.”

Since the school opened, a new kitchen has been added to enable hot meals to be served, and an independent living area has also been created so pupils can practise life skills.

The next stage of the school’s development will be an outdoor space, featuring a horticultural area, sensory garden, and outdoor play equipment.

“It is a case of continuous evolution and, having laid solid foundations, the second year will be focused on progressing the pupils as individuals and making further improvements to the building,” says Tracey.

She also paid tribute to Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council for its support, saying: “I’ve worked with a lot of local authorities over the years, but this is the best. Every department is so supportive.”

SOPHIA’S STORY

SOPHIA was diagnosed as being autistic when she was five, and she struggled in a mainstream school before it was decided that she needed specialist help.

Her mum, Sam, says it was “like winning the lottery” when Sophia was given a place at The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, starting in January this year.

“She’s got her sparkle back,” says Sam. “We can see the light in her eyes, and now I feel she will reach her full potential because she’s getting the right guidance. She used to find going to school difficult, but now she skips to the door every morning.”

Sophia, who is now ten and lives in nearby Eston, has a passion for horses and, every Monday, she goes riding at Stainsby, where she has made new friends and formed a special bond with a pony called Rosie.

She also enjoys going trampolining as part of her time at the school, as well as going for walks in the park.

“It’s an amazing school with such dedicated staff,” says Sam. “Sophia is fully supported and has really flourished. She’s gained confidence and her anxiety has gone down – she’s a different girl.”

Sophia says: “I really like it here. It’s really fun – especially going riding.”

NAOMI’S STORY

NAOMI is one of the many parents whose lives have been transformed by the support they receive from The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre.

She lives at Saltburn, and her 13-year-old daughter was the first pupil through the doors when the school opened a year ago.

“It’s been amazing for both of us because I know she’s in a place where she’s properly understood, and that gives me peace of mind,” says Naomi.

Her daughter had attended a mainstream school but faced challenges and had 20 months out of education before the local authority found her a place at The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, providing vital respite for Naomi, who has another autistic child.

“It’s been a godsend. Before she started here, she had to be with me constantly, and parents need a break. It’s closer to home than other specialist schools and that’s really important because she suffers from separation anxiety,” says Naomi.

“The staff can’t do enough for the children. Tracey is wonderful as principal and my daughter’s teacher, Steph Pearson, is fantastic.”

IRENE’S STORY

Irene Recseg has been part of the team at The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre for eight months after retraining as a teaching assistant.

Irene had been working as a personal assistant for an entertainment business, but when that had to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she relied on universal credit for a while.

However, then she decided to change direction and embarked on an “introduction to working in schools” course at Derwentside College – and that led to her role with the North East Autism Society.

“For ten years, I’d done voluntary work for a sports development company, so I’d been around children, and I was like a lot of people who were pushed into doing something different by the pandemic.

“The training was fantastic, and it gave me so much confidence. The support was even there after hours and I’m lucky to work with the most amazing team. It’s like a family with everyone looking out for each other.”

With fresh vacancies for teaching assistants being advertised for The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, Irene is now urging others to consider a career change.

“My message would be to give it a try and you might surprise yourself. It’s hard work but it’s incredibly rewarding,” she said.

  • To find out about career opportunities with the North East Autism Society, please go to: ne-as.org.uk and click on ‘Join The Team’.