Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: A Parent's Odyssey Through the World of Autism - Part 2
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
by Gerald de Groot
Mark spent 10 very fruitful years at the school - mainly as a day student with occasional residential periods when we went on holiday. He became increasingly socialized and developed into a delightful person whose company everybody seemed to enjoy.
He did have some rare periods of anxious and angry behavior. However as he approached age 15, we and other parents of children of similar age at the school, began to worry about the future. As things stood at the time, after age 18, children ceased to come under the auspices of the education authority, and their school funding would cease.
And there were no facilities available anywhere for adults suffering from autism. The prospect of our children ceasing to receive any further stimulation and almost certainly regressing to their pre- school states was beyond contemplation. So a plan was hatched.
A number of circumstances came together at that point. A little earlier an adjoining house to those that formed the school at Florence Road, Ealing had come on the market. In order to help the school expand, the parents set up a charity - The Ealing Autistic Trust - with four trustees, of which I was one, and bought it. This was made possible by a loan on favorable terms from the bank of one of the parents - Don White - who was also very active in helping us with finding and purchasing Somerset Court. At approximately the same time, Mrs. Elgar's husband, who worked for British Rail, was told he was being transferred to the West Country. It was therefore decided that we would seek a property for a residential home for autistic adults in the West Country, and that Mrs. Elgar would be its first principal.
What followed was approximately eighteen months of weekends going to and fro from the West Country looking for possible sites. We parents took it in turn, and Sybil accompanied us.
Finally we found Somerset Court, which then consisted of the main house and 26 acres of fields and grounds. It was owned by a supermarket millionaire named Cashman who, when he learned what we were about, sold it to the Ealing Autistic Trust for approximately £120,000. The money was raised by selling the house we owned in Ealing to the National Autistic Society - who already owned the other houses used by the School - and raising loans from parents who wanted their children to go to Somerset. Some parents re-mortgaged their houses to raise the loan, and all loans but two were subsequently commuted into gifts.
And so, in September 1974, twenty young people who had been at the Ealing School, moved with Mrs. Elgar to begin their new lives at Somerset Court. All fees were met by their local authorities. The Court was run and administered by a committee consisting of mainly parents and Sybil Elgar, and chaired by Michael Baron.
This achievement was marked by the BBC TV program Panorama doing a feature about it. It was the first unit for autistic adults to be set up in Europe and possibly in the world.
Funds for equipment etc. were raised in a number of ways including a radio appeal read by the actor David Tomlinson - the father in Mary Poppins- who had a son who had been at the school and was now at the Court, and which I scripted.
Mrs. Elgar held the view that autistic people benefited from stimulus and education throughout their lives, and the Court provided continuous courses as well as a range of other day-activities such as woodwork, horticulture, weaving, and printing.
During this period all residents were housed in the main building, where all indoor activities took place. This continued until 1983, but before then the committee persuaded the Bristol Churches Housing Trust to take a conveyance on the land on which the first new building was constructed, and which was then leased back to the Ealing Autistic Trust. This enabled eight residents to be moved out of the main building - easing the considerable burden there.
By 1983 however, the initial pioneering parents were beginning to feel their ages, and in addition the main house, and especially its roof, was desperately in need of repair at an estimated cost of £45,000, which the Trust did not have. In the interests of the long term sustainability of the Court, it was decided to gift the Court to The National Autistic Society, provided they undertook the necessary refurbishment. The transfer was completed in late 1984.