SOMETIMES, the best things happen by chance. It’s as though they were meant to happen.

Three years ago, while hosting an event in Darlington called The Vibe Awards, celebrating the achievements of young people, I met a boy called Jonathan Raiseborough.

He won an award, not only for what he had accomplished in art classes at school, but because of his courage in coping with the challenges of being autistic.

As a consequence of having Asperger’s Syndrome, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Jonathan found it difficult to make friends and assimilate information. He was bullied and spent months in hospital.

At The Vibe Awards, his citation made reference to his ambition to illustrate children’s books so, after the ceremony, we had a chat and I sent him the recently completed manuscript of a story I’d written that was inspired by a cutting in The Northern Echo. A white hedgehog – an albino – had been found by someone walking in the countryside and taken to an animal sanctuary. The hedgehog was different, lacking in camouflage, so it couldn’t have survived in the wild.

To my delight, a few weeks later, Jonathan sent me a collection of beautiful, empathetic illustrations.
A lot’s happened since then. Snowdrop The Spikeshuffler has been published complete with Jonathan’s illustrations. Now 20, he has become an ambassador for the North East Autism Society, which supported publication of the book. 

He’s also now taking commissions as a professional illustrator and started an arts degree at Teesside University, where animation students brought his drawings to life.

Snowdrop has been adopted as the mascot of the North East Autism Society and we now go into schools, spreading the message to children: “Never judge someone just because they are different.”

It has been one of the joys of my life to see how this fragile, anxious young man has grown in confidence.

Tomorrow night, at 8pm on ITV, Jonathan’s remarkable story will be featured on a television progamme called This Time Next Year, presented by Davina McCall.

“Having the opportunity to illustrate the book and see all the exciting developments that have come with it has been such a life-changing experience,” explained Jonathan. “It was difficult to juggle the work along with college, but it’s all been worth it.”

He added: “Being on national TV was an and unexpected but amazing bonus. It was a bit overwhelming but fantastic to meet Davina and share the story that led to my first published illustrations.”

North East Autism Society chief executive John Phillipson said: “Jonathan is proof that people with autism and other neurodiverse conditions have talents and abilities that should never be underestimated. 

“As soon as we heard about his brilliant work on the book, we wanted to help make his dream come true. Snowdrop The Spikeshuffler is selling well and proving invaluable in raising awareness of the charity.”

A week ago, Jonathan was contacted by a clothing company in America, which is interested in using the Snowdrop character to promote an anti-bullying message.

It seems than Jonathan’s story is a long way from drawing to a close.

ONE thing happily leads to another and the connections between Darlington and the world of autism continue to snowball.

Last week, Darlington launched a campaign to become the most autism-friendly town in Britain, with a pioneering partnership between the borough council and the North East Autism Society.

The council, along with dozens of local businesses and organisations, have pledged to train their staff in autism awareness and introduce measures to make life easier for families who are affected.

As proud as I am of Jonathan, I’m also proud of Darlington for coming together to make a difference to families who need support. Particular thanks to Darlington Partnership director Seth Pearson, and Councillor Andy Scott for driving the initiative forward.

A journalist at the launch last week justifiably asked whether Darlington was setting itself up for a fall by being so ambitious in declaring an objective to set the UK standard.

Perhaps…but my experience with campaigns during my time at The Northern Echo is that amazing things happen when you aim high.

FINALLY, what great fun it was to take part in Darlington’s inaugural Book Fest in the town centre library that was saved thanks to a band of passionate campaigners who aimed high.

During one story-telling session with primary schoolchildren, we were discussing the theme that everyone’s different, everyone’s special, and everyone has talents.

“What are you good at?” the children were asked.

The answers included football, drawing, writing, dancing, singing, horse riding and judo. However, by far my favourite answer came from the little boy who enthusiastically waved his hand and replied: “Snoring!”