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 recognised the symptoms in her child, that I realised 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 50,000 parents of autistic children through her website, Anna Kennedy Online. In addition, she provides training for the NSPCC and Childline on the issue of disability bullying and speaks about 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, which raises funds for autism charities.
On 12 May 2012, Anna 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. 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