When Sandy Howarth found her son, Steven had regressed rather than progressed in specialist schools, she decided to teach him herself.
While she had minimal experience of the condition at the time, the 48-year-old from Princes Gardens, Acton, gave up a career in interior design to tutor Steven who is now 19.
Teaching herself skills ranging from physical therapy – there’s a trampoline in the garden – to speech and language, she found Steven could make progress.
She also went on to write an internationally acclaimed book, No Matter What, to help other families and raise awareness of autism.
She joined the UK’s leading campaign group, Act Now, which launched an Impact Assessment Report in London, followed by a 6,000 name petition to Downing Street which said the system was failing families.
Sandy was also invited by Irish Autism Action to Dublin to speak to parents of autistic children two years ago.
But the stresses and strains of teaching Steven were taking their toll and Sandy turned to painting to relieve the pressure, but also to illustrate another book she is writing.
This one will be called Hope Unbound, to help other people cope with “the toughest of mental challenges”.
Each painting has a written expression of her thoughts and feelings at the time.
Sandy said: “Steven’s progress since I started teaching him has increased 20-fold. He can make sense of his world, enjoys horse riding and cycling and has a far greater understanding of environmental situations.
“He is reading, writing, using the computer and helps with household chores. He is now able to complete quite complex puzzles and we can all enjoy a bit of normality such as going to the cinema.
“We took Steven to Les Miserable where he sat quietly and enjoyed it for three hours. Going out with him is not so challenging. He understands more, so I don’t feel so afraid for him in the world.
“When he started to make progress of course it was extremely rewarding, until I burnt out. I realised I was suffering from post traumatic stress after watching a programme on the Taliban and realised I had the same feelings.
“There was no one else who had the same interest or commitment to help Steven, but I had to bounce back so I started to paint as a way of finding a mental release; to combat the strain of the challenges I had taken on.
“I knew that teaching my autistic son at 16 was very different to working with him when he was a little boy. I required the mental strength as much as I needed the physical strength.
“Although I hadn’t planned on painting any topics relating to autism, but as time went on it felt the paintings were guiding me to what I needed to do with Steven.”
The paintings chart Sandy’s life with Steven as well as her emotions at the time, from The Arrival of a Child – ‘the complete joy when nothing could measure up to the pleasure of holding my new born baby boy’ to The Void – ‘the diagnosis of my son’s autism... the isolation through the lifelong challenges my son and I were expected to face.’
The most poignant is the painting, Burn Out where Sandy says: ‘I felt like all the electrical circuits had shut down and I was living a monotonous life of a prisoner.’
Light at the end of the tunnel is highlighted in the painting Respect and Gratitude where ‘people learn to respect and show gratitude for the children they are given, to make the human race far less selfish and create a more giving world.’
Sandy, who also has a painting of Steven with her daughter, Riana, 14, ‘a gift of normality,’ above all hopes her journey will help others, those in the autistic as well as the non-autistic world, understand how much can be achieved.
She said: “The paintings highlight the challenges, the needs and the trauma but above all they offer a vision of hope for a young man in desperate need.”