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I was thrown into the world of autism because both my sons were diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition and I set up a school for autistic children after her own sons were turned away from mainstream education.
We remortgaged our own house so my husband and I could set up a school for autistic children after our two autistic sons were turned away from mainstream education. We now have now expanded support for those with autism to include two schools, a college, a residential home a charity website and social media virtual community with over 80,000 UK and international followers.
Caring for my two sons on the autism spectrum can be a challenge and rewarding this "When I was told by the Authorities that Patrick (now 26) and Angelo (now 23) were the only children in our area with autism, I felt completely isolated and alone. It was only when I bumped into another parent one day and recognised the symptoms in her child, that I realised I wasn’t alone. Together, we started a support group in my home IN 1997."
Our group grew rapidly and was soon attended by 275 families. When Angelo and Patrick were later turned away by 25 mainstream schools, I resorted to converting our garage into a classroom. However, the local authority granted my sons only five hours of home tuition a week. Angelo’s tutor was completely unable to cope with a severely autistic child and on her third day collapsed in tears.
I had no experience of running a business but decided to set up a school for our sons and other autistic children. "I knew there were other heartbroken parents like me, feeling desperate after being rejected by school after school," "That’s when I realised I could create somewhere for our children."
After hearing about a local school that was scheduled to be demolished, my husband Sean and I put together a feasibility study to show how it could be converted into a school for autistic children – since there was such a need in the area. We lobbied Banks and remortgaged our home to raise the £627,000 worth of refurbishment costs that were needed to secure a lease on the property for 30 years. "At the time my husband and I had just £3,000 in the bank!" "It was definitely a challenge but I looked at my sons and thought, 'We can do this.'"
I then turned to my local community for help and my determination paid off. "We applied for loans, fundraised and did everything we could to get the money. I did sponsored keep-fits and others did cycle rides. Volunteers started coming out of the woodwork to help us including carpenters, painters, and electricians.
"British Airways put in a kitchen as a team building exercise. A fabulous gentleman David Kamsler who has now sadly passed away gave us furniture and carpet tiles – we picked them up from Basingstoke over six journeys in a borrowed battered old van and carpeted the hall, classrooms and corridors for free. I even approached the Probation Service and organised for offenders to come and volunteer – and after their community service time was up many kept coming back to help out. It was incredible."
Setting up the school was a steep and total learning curve as I had to find out how to do everything from writing an advertisement for a specialist headteacher to dealing with Ofsted, Health and Safety, and CRB checks. "The hardest thing was tiredness because Angelo only sleeps three hours a night and I was looking after both boys at home full time," "We had no money and lived off 9p tins of beans, but we just had to make it work."
The Hillingdon School opened in 1999 with 19 pupils. "When Ofsted came to inspect the school in its first month, I was so nervous I was sick," "They had the power to shut the school meaning we’d lose everything, including our house. The inspector said if he had a child with autism he’d have no hesitation in sending them to us and after he left I was running up and down the corridor filled with joy!" The school is now one of the largest of its kind in Europe, offering 180 autistic children a safe, structured education and a brighter future.
Not stopping there,we went on to set up a Vocational Community college in 2001, a residential home for adults in 2004, a second specialist school in Kent in 2011, and now has an international following of 80,000 parents of autistic children through social media and our UK Charity website, Anna Kennedy Online. In addition, we have provided training for the NSPCC and Childline on the issue of disability bullying and speaks about autism all over the UK.
In 2009, I wrote the book Not Stupid about the struggle to set up our Hillingdon School and our Patron Esther Rantzen wrote the foreword. In April 2012, I released a Dance DVD, Step In The Right Direction, and its success led to national Dance Day, which fundraises for autism charities and raises awareness.
On 12 May 2012, My team and I organised the first talent show of its kind called Autism’s Got Talent, which saw children and adults with autism perform on stage to a packed audience at London’s Mermaid Theatre. We are now in our fifth year and I have become the Simon Cowell of the Autism World.
I was honoured to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list 2012 for my services to special needs education and autism.
One of the highlights of my life was being chosen to dance on Peoples Strictly for Comic Relief. Here is a link to my story :
"People with autism shouldn’t be hidden. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I want all children, including my own boys, to have the chance to make a mark on the world just like everybody else."
Please see our charity website www.annakennedyonline.com
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