STAFF have gathered to pay tribute to the chair of a North-East charity who has retired after decades spent campaigning on behalf of autistic people.

Colleagues from the North East Autism Society (NEAS) staged a surprise garden party for Gavin Bestford, who has stepped down as the charity’s chair.

Gavin, who had a long career in local government accountancy, became a trustee of NEAS in 2002 before taking over as chair three years later.

The party took place at 24 Thornhill Park, in Sunderland, where the charity set up its first school in 1980 after a determined campaign by parents with autistic children. The building continues to provide personalised social and vocational training programmes for autistic and neurodivergent adults.

NEAS chief executive John Phillipson told staff: “We wouldn’t be the charity we are today without Gavin’s passion, commitment, and fantastic work behind the scenes to make things happen. I couldn’t have had a more supportive chair and it has been a pleasure working with him.”

Gavin described his time with the charity as “the privilege of my life” adding: “We have done so much but there is so much more to do. I would have liked there to no longer be a need for us but, sadly, I think it’s even harder for families now than it was in my day. Thankfully, we have superb staff and I know NEAS is in good hands.”

Gavin became involved with NEAS when his son Alex was diagnosed as autistic when he was four. Now 36, he continues to be cared for by NEAS in a supported home.

Under Gavin’s leadership, the charity has undergone a huge growth in services, along with more than £30m of capital development in specialist facilities, including two new schools on Teesside over the past few years.

Gavin is succeeded as chair by retired GP Rakesh Chopra, who also has a son in the care of NEAS.