Helping hand for children with autism�0�2

Nanjing Night Net

WHEN Hilton Grugeon’s son Tim was young, it was a time when problem children were typically blamed on the mother.

Years later Tim was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a relatively mild condition on the autism spectrum.

The experience gave the property developer an insight into the plight of parents of autistic children.

So when the Hunter Aspect School for children with autism needed help to find a permanent home, he was eager to help.

The result was unveiled yesterday at the official opening of the Hunter Aspect School in Thornton.

The Newcastle Herald first exposed the school’s plight in August 2010 when it was squeezed out of its Shortland Public School base because of stimulus-package works and growing enrolments.

The late Tim Austin lobbied Paterson MP Bob Baldwin, who then contacted Mr Grugeon.

What followed was a true community project.

The Owens family donated land, Mr Grugeon oversaw construction, the federal government provided stimulus-package money, the state government fitted out an early-intervention centre, the Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation gave $165,000 for the library and Maitland City Council scrapped the rates.

Groups such as The Men’s Shed as well as tradespeople volunteered their services.

The school, which already has 105 children, is fully equipped to cater to the needs of autistic children and administer the work of its satellite classes around the region.

It will be at capacity with 118 students in 2013. There is even talk of building a dedicated high school next door.

An emotional Mr Grugeon helped officially open the centre yesterday.

‘‘It’s what we said we’d do and we did it. This community is fantastic – it will rise to the challenge for those members of the community that have got the tremendous burden of a child with autism,’’ he said.

Among the enrolments is Ben Harris, 6, of Metford. His mother Lynda Harris said parents appreciated the purpose-built school and supportive staff.

‘‘It’s so huge to be able to leave them at a school where you know their needs are being met,’’ she said.

Principal Liz Murray said it meant the world to the autism community.

‘‘There’s always going to be somewhere they can go to get the services they need,’’ she said.

HOME AT LAST: Student Ben Harris, 6, Hilton Grugeon and Lynda Harris, at the Aspect Hunter School opening. Picture: Marina Neil