FOUR friends have narrowly avoided being locked up for what a judge described as the appalling treatment of a teenager with mild autism.

Alex Hope, 19, was bullied by the gang after they forced their way into his car and ordered him to drive them around east Cleveland.

The teenager, who suffers from Aspergers syndrome, was teased, had his ears flicked and was threatened during the ordeal last spring.

Judge George Moorhouse yesterday said the offence warranted custody, but spared the gang of drunken friends a prison sentence.

He told them: "Your behaviour on May 11 was appalling. It is clear from what I have read that that young man was terrified by what happened and it will live in his memory for a long time.

"You forced yourselves upon someone that you knew. He was a vulnerable person who was known to you all, and you chose to bully him, tease him, on occasions slap his face, pull his handbrake on and flick his ears in the course of the journey."

All four Guisborough men were ordered to carry out unpaid work in the community after they admitted affray.

Kane Parker, 17, of Woodhouse Road, was ordered to do 80 hours; Robert Mackenzie, 25, of Allison Street, was given 100 hours; Brian Mackenzie, 21, of Aldenham Street, was given 100 hours; and Sean Harris, 18, of Rathwaite Close, was ordered to do 140 hours.

A fifth man, Stephen Jackson, 25, of Rectory Lane, Guisborough, will be punished later after a pre-sentence report has been compiled by a probation worker.

Barristers for all four men who were sentenced said they accepted they had taken things too far, but had been influenced by large amounts they had drunk and "high spirits got out of hand".