A CHARITY has stepped up its £2m appeal to create a centre of excellence for autistic youngsters on the site of what was once dubbed the UK’s toughest children’s home.

Phase one of the work to transform the former secure centre near Newton Aycliffe , County Durham, is well under way and involves the revamp of existing buildings and swimming pool. The work is expected to be completed by the end of next month.

A new building, which will include a 56-place school and provide residential places and respite care for up to 15 families in times of crisis, is due to open next year.

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The North-East Autism Society (NEAS) launched an appeal to raise funds for the centre in April and, as work progresses, the need for support remains essential.

“It’s an exciting time for NEAS,” said John Phillipson, chief executive of the society.

“This development will greatly increase our reach and will allow us to provide services across the whole region.

“We still have a long way to go with the fundraising to get the centre up and running and are continuing to appeal to companies and high-networth individuals to support vital elements of the project, such as our sports and leisure facilities that are so desperately needed.”

When complete, the centre will become a southern base for the Sunderland-based charity, encompassing care, education for four to 19-yearolds, short breaks, early years provision, leisure activities, residential accommodation and an Aspergers unit, as well as improving the scope of outreach services.

The site, just off the A167, previously housed Aycliffe Children’s Centre, which has provided care for children and young people since 1947 under a number of names.

It was denounced in the 1980s and 1990s amid allegations of brutality, but has since recovered, earning international status for its work. A £12m secure centre has been built 100 yards away.

Companies wanting to support NEAS can do so by making a cash donations or by providing Gifts in Kind, such as volunteering, donating equipment, sponsoring a room or encouraging staff to take part in the Great North Run, skydives and bungee jumps on its behalf.

Visit ne-as.org.uk or call 0191-410-9974.