© BROOD MAGAZINE. ANNA KENNEDY OBE 

“We re-mortgaged our home and set up a school!

Inspirational Mum of two, Anna Kennedy OBE has been a trailblazer for Autism Awareness since the 1990’s; when her two boys, Patrick and Angelo, and were diagnosed with Autism. When Anna couldn’t find a school that could meet her boy’s needs, Anna and her husband Sean remortgaged their home with the support of local parents and built one! This was just start of an incredible journey that has consequently helped shape and changed the lives of thousands of people diagnosed with Autism, along with the parents and carers of children on the autism spectrum. Through her unwavering determination and an unbelievable amount of passion, Anna has founded a number of innovative facilities, created life changing campaigns and been the force behind a number of petitions for change. Powered by the love of her boys a desire to support and serve the Autism community, Anna is a Mum on a mission, and it is no wonder that her remarkable charity work and achievements led her to be recognized and awarded an OBE by the late Queen Elizabeth II. 

Autism's Got Talent
Anna Kennedy OBE
© BROOD MAGAZINE. ANNA KENNEDY OBE

“…Keep nurturing your children’s interests as you never know where it might lead!

You have achieved so much since you embarked on your journey to raise awareness about Autism, tell us how it all started and some of the things that you have achieved along the way.  

“When my boys were diagnosed with Autism, it was the nineties so there wasn’t a lot of support available out there at the time, so I had to fight for everything. There weren’t any schools out that could meet our boy’s needs so we remortgaged our home to set up a school. Hundreds of children have gone on to benefit from the school, so it was the best thing we ever did! We decided then went on to set up a college too since Autism is a lifelong developmental condition. The Vocational College offers a day service that runs 44 weeks of the year, it was set up this way since during the summer holidays it can be quite stressful for parents whose children are adults since school holiday breaks can be very busy. We also set up a residential home too, for eight adults. The idea was that this would be a stepping stone from living in the residential home into moving into their own home or supported living. Many of the residents have moved on to get a job or move into their own homes. 

 I set up the charity Anna Kennedy Online in 2009 because parents were contacting me about the difficulties, they were encountering with reference to getting a diagnosis, a lot of whom had been waiting for many years. 

The charity now has many volunteers that are as passionate and driven as I am and that want to support as many families of autistic children and adults as possible. The charity also provides a touchstone for Autistic adults, it’s a place that they know they can either email or call the charity office to chat or if they even just want to run some ideas past someone. Since starting the charity, we have developed many events such as the Autism Expo, which gives people the chance to come along and listen to various speakers, along with the chance to see different professionals in the clinics that we hold there. We went on to develop the Charity Autism Hero Awards where hundreds of nominations are sent in by the public from across the UK and Overseas which is a red-carpet event for inspiring individuals and groups who go the extra mile for the autism community. One of my favourite annual events of which I am a founder is the world-renowned Autism’s got Talent!

 

Tell us about Autism’s Got Talent, what made you decide to start that? 

“Autism’s Got Talent came about when I was talking to people who were contacting us about being bullied after I launched our Anti Bullying campaign Give us a Break, they would share with us that they had developed skills and amazing talents. For example, many had taught themselves to play the guitar both acoustic and electric, and other people had taught themselves to do magic, plus many other talents all from watching youtube videos. They would send in many videos to share what they had achieved, and as these videos started coming in, I got really excited. At that time, I was invited to a show by Pineapple Performing Arts School at the Mermaid Theatre and as I was looking around, I thought I want to put on a show here made up purely of talented autistic children and adults. So, I approached Maggie Paterson (the principal and founder of Pineapple Performing Arts School) and we launched ‘Autism’s Got Talent’. It has now been 11 years, and we are sent in auditions from all over the world; Morocco, Italy, Canada, America, plus many more! It’s an amazing show and I always say that you have to be there to truly appreciate what I’m talking about. Every year it gets better, I don’t how but it just does! I think it’s great how it inspires the children and adults in the audience that are Autistic to want to take part or develop a performing arts skill since it inspires them that they too can do this one day.”  

 

What issues do you still see that need addressing in terms of Autism Awareness and Acceptance?

“Since I started the charity things haven’t really changed that much in terms of for example bullying, if anything it’s probably on the increase because of online bullying. This is really sad, so we set up an anti-bullying campaign in 2011, that’s called ‘Give us a break!’ and we originally started that alongside Esther Rantzen and the NSPCC. And we run a new campaign each year.  

I also recently set up a petition that now has over 12,000 signatures because there’s not enough support or a one-stop shop if you like, with information on who will support your sons or daughters when you’re no longer around. There’s always that question in the back of parents’ and carers’ minds ‘Who’s going to look after my children when I’m no longer around’. I would advise people to set up a trust and make sure that you have a will – MENCAP has a fantastic service, and there are some workshops out there. I would say the early set it up the better it is, for your own peace of mind. 

I recently was asked to be involved in a documentary with Katie Price and Harvey. Katie talks about how she didn’t realise how far ahead you have to start the transition process for 18 plus when your child is going from school to college. From doing that documentary with the BBC we received so many messages from people saying they too didn’t realise how far ahead you have to plan, and it highlighted that there needs to be more awareness and information around this process. So, we set up a few workshops to help people navigate those transitions. My husband Sean has had a diagnosis of Asperger’s since 2013, and he is a barrister. Sean conducted a workshop online to help families with all the various legal questions that they had. So, from that one documentary we were able to help so many different parents and I’m also pleased to say that Katie did find the right place for Harvey, that can meet all his complex needs and he’s been there for over a year now and he’s doing really well.”

Anna Kennedy OBE
ANNA KENNEDY OBE © BROOD MAGAZINE

“…Don’t forget who you are.”

Your sons are older now, how do you think your work has positively impacted their lives? 

“Well Patrick is 32 now and I’m pleased to say he’s got a full-time job at Pinewood Studios. His passion for dinosaurs, which began when he was seven years old has led him to give a speech at Pinewood Studios in front of the production team of Jurassic World and all the staff there. He’s known as ‘Paleo Pat’ he’s been working there for 4 years now, and they know all about his passion for dinosaurs. I’m really proud of him. He’s obviously nervous since he’s never spoken in front of a lot of people before, but it just shows you where your passions can lead you, as that passion he had as a little boy has led him to do this. I always say keep nurturing your children’s interests as you never know where it might lead. Patrick has also just moved into his own flat, and he’s slowly getting used to it, he still gets overwhelmed every now and again however he is making great progress and his flat is spotless! Bills are a big thing for him to learn about, at one point he thought he just paid the bill once and that was it, and I said ‘No, it’s every month Patrick – if only!’ [she laughs] Angelo still lives at home; he will always need one-to-one support. Angelo is 29 now and he’s quite profoundly affected by his autism, and he’s got quite a significant sensory processing condition. He goes to the college that we set up which he enjoys so that’s been really good for him.”

You work so incredibly hard and obviously even though your boys are adults now, your role as a mum is still very hands-on, particularly with Angelo, do you get any time for yourself?

“Well, two years ago I actually brought a wellbeing ambassador into the charity, as it was covid and obviously a lot of people were struggling with their wellbeing, so I thought it was something important that we needed to talk about. For me, I use dance to help my well-being. I haven’t been for a couple of years now, but I used to go to Zumba every Thursday, it was 7-8pm and that was my release. So, I do need to start that again, but I still do try and just have a dance or exercise each morning and that sets me up for the day. Sometimes when I’m in the office on my own, I put a bit of music on, and I just start having a little dance! [she laughs] I was invited and chosen for the Peoples Strictly which was for Comic Relief and that was an amazing experience! I was chosen out of 11,000 people so it was just incredible. We got four tens’, so it was just a fantastic experience one I will never forget. I’m still friends with Robin Windsor and he comes and supports Autism’s Got Talent every year.”  

What advice would you give other parents who are juggling their work and life as a parent?

“You definitely do need to have some me time, even though it’s not always easy. I’ve actually started a campaign called ‘Take Five’ and it’s literally about taking five minutes for yourself. Whatever it may be just take five minutes to be you. Not a mum. Not in your work. Just to be you. Don’t forget who you are!”

You can get your tickets to Autism’s Got Talent on the charity website and find out more about the incredible work that Anna does at www.AnnaKennedyOnline.com

Please sign Anna’s petition at http://www.change.org/Annapetition

Simon Wood
Written by Lolo Stubbs
Tom Pitfield and his daughter Iris

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM PITFIELD

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