Inspiring, Uplifting and Informative INNERviews
INNERview with Anna Kennedy
Anna re-mortgaged her own house so she could set up a school for autistic children after her two autistic sons were turned away from mainstream education. She has now expanded support for those with autism to include two schools, a college, a respite home and a website with over 63,000 international followers.
When I was told by the authorities that Patrick (now 23) and Angelo (now 20) 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 recognized the symptoms in her child, that I realized I wasn’t alone. Together, we started a support group in my home.
The group grew rapidly and was soon attended by 275 families. When Angelo and Patrick were later turned away by 25 mainstream schools, Anna resorted to converting her garage into a classroom. After hearing about a local school that was scheduled to be demolished, Anna and her husband Sean 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.
The Hillingdon School opened in 1999 with 19 pupils and is now the largest of its kind in Europe, offering 150 autistic children a safe, structured education and a brighter future. Not stopping there, Anna went on to set up a community college in 2001, a respite home for adults in 2004, a second specialist school in Kent in 2011, and now has an international following of 63,000 parents of autistic children through social media and her website, Anna Kennedy Online. In addition, she has provided training for the NSPCC, Childline and worked with Anti Bullying Alliance on the issue of disability, bullying and speaks about her campaign Give us a Break and autism all over the UK.
In 2009, Anna wrote the book, “Not Stupid” about the struggle to set up The Hillingdon School and their patron Esther Rantzen wrote the foreword. In April 2012, she released a fitness DVD, Step In The Right Direction, and its success led to National Dance Day – fundraisers for autism charities. On 12 May 2012, Anna organized 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. The show included a performance from autistic dancer James Hobley, who had appeared on Britain’s Got Talent.
Anna was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list 2012 for her services to special needs education and autism.
Anna says, ‘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.’
YVONNE PIERRE: Naturally parents are their child’s best advocate, but what led you to begin to advocate for all children with Autism and Aspergers Syndrome?
ANNA KENNEDY: What led me to advocate for children and adults with autism spectrum conditions was after experiencing difficulties with my own 2 sons in trying to secure an education for them both. Many years down the line I discovered parents were still going through the same difficulties with their own children whether it be for diagnosis, securing a school that can meet their children’s needs, bullying, and post 19 provision. It almost appeared that the system for SEN children had not moved on all those years down the line. I later discovered it was very much either a postcode lottery for support and provision or it was usually parents who fought for their children’s needs and mastered the system were receiving quality education and care.
YVONNE: You founded two ASD specialist schools in the UK, could you tell us about them?
ANNA: Since 1999 I have co founded two schools Hillingdon Manor School the first school for my boys in 1999 and then in 2010 Baston House School both schools for children on the autism spectrum. Hillingdon Manor is a specialist school for children on the autism spectrum and educates 150 pupils making it the largest autism specific school in UK who are aged between 3 and 1/2 and 19 years old. The school offers a unique mix of education and support to pupils within a wide spectrum of needs and abilities. Personalized teaching and learning within an autistic specific environment allows pupils’ individual needs to be addressed completely and their capabilities fully realized. Baston House our second sister and is growing day by day and eventually will educate over 100 pupils.
YVONNE: What inspired you to launch these schools?
ANNA: Both my sons inspired me to set up schools since they were both at home for 3 years receiving 5 hours home tuition per week. This was because the Local Authority could not find placements for my son and Mainstream admitted they could not meet their needs.
YVONNE: What led you on the journey of advocating for Autism and Asperger Syndrome?
ANNA: When the boys were reaching their teenage years I was looking to see what was out there for them both especially Angelo who had severe autism, epilepsy and significant sensory issues and a processing disorder. Yet again nothing neat to where we lived there we set up a small Vocational College for adults 16 to 60 years old where Angelo has now started College life a year ago.
YVONNE: What has been your greatest challenge on their journey?
ANNA: Greatest challenge in setting up schools, setting up a company being a Director was obviously this was not my area of expertise, but between my husband and I, we had had crash courses in many areas to enable us set up the school for our boys. When reading about autism it stressed in many books how early intervention is crucial and my boys were already 5 and 8 years old so time was of the essence.
There were many highs and lows and raising the money for the school was another difficult area since many banks were not willing to support our idea and then finally Barclays Bank and remortgaging our home did the trick.
It is the best thing I have ever done in my life and if I had to live my life over I would do it again and we did with Baston House School.
YVONNE: What has been your greatest reward?
ANNA: One of my greatest rewards is setting up Autism’s got Talent. My background is dance so I love performing arts. Many parents were writing to me about their children being bullied in schools, in the community and cyber bullying. Many of these children and adults were turning to the performing arts to help them get through their ordeal. They started sending me clips of children singing dancing, acting, fabulous art work and they were amazing. So in 2012 Autism got Talent was born and it was an amazing success. The feeling in the theatre was electric and the finale the cherry on the cake. We decided this most definitely an annual event and we have developed a road show too.
I have recently been awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Professional Studies from Teesside University, from my home town. I received a letter in July and dropped to the floor in shock. This special event will take place at the end of November at the University. I will speak to students at the University followed by a celebratory dinner at the Riverside Club in Cleveland.
Another high for me was meeting the Queen and interviewing The Prime Minister. Here are two links:
YVONNE: How can people get in touch with you?
People can get in touch with me through http://www.annakennedyonline.com where we have our own training, advice and behavioral support office Austin Hughes who can give advice, offer training. Also, my Husband Sean is our legal guru on education and community care assessments so he can offer advice as well.