As the North East Autism Society announces it is creating 250 jobs due to a major expansion, one man tells PETER BARRON how he swapped being a butcher for the rewards of caring for autistic children

UNHAPPY in his job as a supermarket butcher, Paul Halford was searching for a new direction in life – and it was through his passion for coaching junior football that he found it.

Paul, an amiable Geordie, had started coaching Winlaton Dragons, on Tyneside, when his son, Christos, took up football in 2011.

One little boy, called Theo, was different from the others. It took him longer to understand instructions, and he even had a tendency to score in the wrong goal. Theo was autistic, and Paul decided he needed a greater understanding of how to help him.

“I realised that I was the problem, rather than Theo,” he recalls. “I needed to gain more knowledge, so that I could make adjustments to the way I coached him.”

Paul attended seminars on autism and discovered that small changes made a big difference. They included the simple technique of hanging a yellow bib in one of the nets, so that Theo could differentiate between the goals.

“It was also a question of giving him a little bit more time,” he says.

Paul was born and raised in Newcastle. His dad was a gas engineer, and his mum was a playgroup leader at a local community centre.

“Maybe it was because of what she did that I always loved kids, and the football coaching was part of that,” he says.

However, despite studying health and social care at college, he began a 20-year career at a supermarket in Newcastle, initially as a Saturday lad, and progressing to the fishmonger’s department. That was followed by a full-time job as a butcher, before he got his first taste of management as an assistant manager in the bakery.

He ended up returning to being a butcher, as a team leader, and stayed in that role for seven years.

But Paul felt increasingly unfulfilled and, after the birth of his fourth child, he applied for a job as a support worker at Cedar House, a residential home, run by the North East Autism Society, at Newton Aycliffe.

“Other than attending the seminars as a football coach, I had no real experience of autism, and, after the interview, I went home wondering why I’d even thought I had a chance,” says Paul. “But I got a phone call offering me the job, and I snapped their hand off, because it was a chance to work with kids and go in a completely different direction.”

Paul did his last shift at the supermarket on Christmas Eve 2018, and started at Cedar House on January 7, 2019, as part of a team helping to look after eight children with a wide range of needs.

Each of the children has their own furnished apartment, made to feel like home, with family pictures on the walls, and personal belongings around them.

“It’s just an amazing place and I can honestly say I haven’t looked back,” he says. “The support I’ve had has been first-class, and the rewards come with seeing the positive results of what you do every day.”

Caring for one young resident has included taking him on football stadium tours and long bike rides. “It’s about giving them positive life experiences,” explains Paul. “It’s the simple things that mean the most – like seeing the pleasure on his face when he does a skid on the bike.”

With another child, the job led to a trip to Edinburgh Zoo, horse riding on the beach in Northumberland, and taking him to a pottery shop so he could make a plate for his mam.

“Every job has its challenges but there’s so much variety here, and such a learning curve,” says Paul.

Instead of the five-day week he was working at the supermarket, Paul now has the flexibility of working the same number of hours over fewer days, in different shifts.

“The way the organisation is run is brilliant – I’ve never known a management team like it, and the rest of the team are fantastic people to work with,” he adds. “They really care about what they do, and just want to make a difference.”

Paul, 38, has benefited from intensive training in strategies to minimise the residents’ anxiety and negative behaviours, and is now in a position where he can train new starters. Ultimately, he’d like to progress into a management role but, for now, he’s content because he feels he’s learning so much every day.

“My advice to anyone who’s out of work, or doesn’t feel fulfilled in their job, is to think about following the same path as me,” he says. “I did a job for 20 years that I didn’t want to do – my only regret is that it took me so long to find something I really love.”

For more information about career opportunities with the North East Autism Society, go to: and click on careers

BACK in June, I wrote a column about meeting a lovely fella, called Dave Ward, during a lockdown walk with my wife at Neasham, near Darlington.

Dave appeared sad as he looked out across the River Tees, and my wife asked if he was OK. It started a conversation that led to us discovering that he’d grown up in South Africa, and had travelled the world as a session musician.

The highlight of his career came in the 1980s when he went on tour as a guitarist with Percy Sledge, of “When A Man Loves A Woman” fame.

The song title could hardly have been more appropriate because Dave was desperately missing his wife, Lizzie, who’d flown to South Africa just before the pandemic and hadn’t been able to get back.

Since June, a number of people have asked for an update. Well, I’m delighted to say that I bumped into Dave, pictured below, in South Park at the weekend, and the joyful news is that Lizzie has finally made it back to Darlington.

“It’s amazing to have her back – I’m as happy as Larry again!” he smiled.

The Northern Echo:

LARRY might be happy but Donald certainly isn’t.

With President Trump alleging – without a single shred of evidence – that he only lost the US election because of widespread voter fraud, it looks more and more like they’ll have to drag him, kicking and screaming, out of The White House.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to launch a little party game in the run-up to Christmas. All you have to do is come up with five words that spell T.R.U.M.P.

For starters, I’ve gone for Treacherous, Repulsive, Unhinged, Moronic, Pillock.

All entries welcome at

FINALLY, a company called is advertising for a recruit to earn £1,800 by watching 25 Christmas movies, and helping to judge the best festive film of all time.

Sounds to me like It’s A Wonderful Life.

The Northern Echo: