In World Autism Acceptance Month, PETER BARRON continues the story of a young autistic man making his mark through a special gift for illustration – and a world-famous artist who was told he’d never get a job

FIVE years ago, the focus of this column was Jonathan Raiseborough, an autistic teenager who didn’t quite fit in, struggled to make friends, and faced an uncertain future.

Today, during World Autism Acceptance Month, it is a joy to continue Jonathan’s inspirational story, as a way of breaking down the barriers that often surround the lives of autistic people.

To recap from where we left off in 2017...Jonathan was always different and there were times when he was bullied while growing up in Darlington.

It wasn’t until he reached primary school that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, finally giving his family an explanation for the challenges he was having.

But Jonathan wasn’t just different – he was special. It quickly became clear that he had a gift for art and he developed a childhood ambition to become a children’s book illustrator, like Quentin Blake, the artist who brought the Roald Dahl books to life.

I first met Jonathan in 2016 when I compered an awards night for young people in Darlington and his artistic skills were deservedly recognised. By happy coincidence, I was looking for an illustrator for a children’s novel I’d written, called Snowdrop The Spikeshuffler, about an albino hedgehog who emerges as a hero after being picked on because he’s different.

A conversation between us led to Jonathan illustrating the book, which was published with the support of the North East Autism Society (NEAS).

Jonathan’s story went on to be featured on a national television programme, called This Time Next Year, and he became an ambassador for NEAS.

But that was just the start. Five years on, Jonathan’s talent has taken him a long way. The boy who didn’t fit in, found the confidence to go to Teesside University to study for a degree in graphic design and illustration.

Studying through the pandemic gave him the inspiration for his final major project. Called Time Out In Nature, it was an illustrative campaign to encourage young people to visit nature reserves. He achieved a 2:1 and the graduation ceremony takes place on April 29.

Meanwhile, Jonathan has been building an impressive portfolio as a freelance illustrator, including being commissioned to work on a book called My Brother Tom Has Superpowers by Harriet Axbey, a teacher and PhD student at Durham University, who is also autistic.

The story is about an autistic girl who thinks her brother has superpowers because he can read minds, but she discovers that everyone has special abilities.

Jonathan has now teamed up again with me for a book called Zizu Loses His Stripes, about a little zebra whose jungle adventure demonstrates the power of friendship.

The book was commissioned by Teesside businessman Maaz Rahman and his partner Nicci Knight, who run Zizu’s Day Care and Learning Centre, in Middlesbrough town centre.

The book will be published in June and sales will help support The Zizu’s Foundation, which is dedicated to helping fund early-years education for children who might otherwise not get that opportunity.

To cap it all, Jonathan has now started a full-time apprenticeship as a Digital Marketing Executive, working for Zizu’s Day Care and Learning Centre as well as a digital transformation agency, Dynamo Kings, which is also run by Maaz Rahman.

“I never believed so much could happen,” says Jonathan. “There can’t be many people who, before they’ve even graduated, have already had two books published, with another on the way.”

“The North East Autism Society was where it all started really. They gave me the confidence to go to university and to realise I could achieve my dream of being a professional illustrator, and I can’t thank them enough for making this possible.

“And to get a job with lovely people like Maaz and Nicci, who are so supportive and flexible in also allowing me to carry on with my freelance work, is amazing.”

Maaz says Jonathan was offered the job because of his “meticulous eye for detail and creative spark”.

“There’s so much talent in the world, but because of the society we live in, a lot of it goes unnoticed because people are different or neurodiverse.

"Jonathan is a perfect example of someone who deserves an opportunity just like anyone else, and we are absolutely thrilled to have him part of our team,” he added.

So, Jonathan has this message for Autism Acceptance Month: “Employers have to understand autism more and make work more accessible. Autistic people have different skills and abilities, and they should be helped to do what they want to do – and to know they are valued and supported.”

JONATHAN was one of the guests on Friday when world-famous artist Mackenzie Thorpe officially opened a school named in his honour.

Middlesbrough-born Mackenzie was in South Bank to open The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre, run by the North East Autism Society.

Mackenzie proudly serves as the Society's patron and, to mark the occasion, he unveiled a spectacular and poignant work of art, specially produced for the charity, called Welcome To My World.

In a moving speech, he told how, when he was at school and held back by dyslexia, he was told he was 'thick' and would never get a job because all he could do was draw.

"I could only do one thing but I could do it better than anyone else, so I drew and I drew and I drew, and now I travel to America, Japan and all kinds of other places because I can draw," he said.

"You don't have to do everything, you just have to do one thing, do it well, and don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't be what you want to be."

The man should be treasured.

  • The North East Autism Society has a dedicated department called Employment Futures, focused on removing barriers to meaningful employment for autistic people and those with learning difficulties. Find out more at:

FINALLY, a personal thank you to Redcar Racecourse for naming the 3.50pm race on Monday The Happy Big Birthday Peter Barron Novice Stakes in recognition of my 60th birthday.

I had no idea it was happening but by far the biggest surprise is that the race wasn't restricted to old grey geldings carrying a bit of overweight.