East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST)

In 1994, I moved to Cambridge to work as the Community Fundraiser for the East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST). This was a new charity, started just two years earlier. And was run from the front room of Owen Spencer-Thomas‘s, house. Along with his wife, Maggie, their aim was to build a purpose-built home. Juniper House became the first specialised unit for young adults with autism in Cambridgeshire. Although I was only with the charity for just under three years, Owen and his family have remained life-long friends. And much of the knowledge I gained about charitable work stems from this brief time at EAST.

Joining EAST
Happy dance
Juniper House project
Funding the project
Supporting young families
Enabling through information
Meetings and autism-friendly creche
Telephone Support

As my Charity Background explains, I volunteered my services with Scope for six months after University. With this experience under my belt, I was ready to find something that paid. I have family in Sussex and the East Anglian region, so I sent speculative letters to a number of charities in these areas.

Joining EAST

In December 1993, my letter landed on the doormat of a small charity in Cambridgeshire.  The East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST) had just decided to employ a fundraiser.

They were looking for a part-time Community Fundraiser to arrange small fundraising and awareness events.  This would allow their chairman, Owen Spencer-Thomas, to focus on corporate and charitable trust donations. So, having received my letter, Owen gave me a call.

Happy dance

I am going to interject a little story here. Owen called me to invite me to an interview with a view to offering me the job. He said it was only part time, would last just three months. And the pay would only be £7/hour. This was double what I earned delivering cars during University. And still more than most of my friends.

I asked Owen if I could take a moment to think about it. And I swear this is true. I put the phone done and did a little Laura “Love Actually” Linney happy dance. I then picked up the phone, and in my best business voice, accepted the terms.

Working Title GIF
Laura Linney in “Love Actually”
released 21 November 2003 (via GIPHY)

So began a three-month contract that was to last for nearly three years.  And see me move to Cambridgeshire on a permanent basis.

Juniper House project

EAST was run out of the front room of Owen and Maggie Spencer-Thomas’s house.  With two boys on the autistic spectrum, they had embarked on a £1 million project to support autism. This was to build the only home in Cambridgeshire for young adults with autism.  Their eldest son was continuing to live in a special school in Devon at the age of 19. And they wanted to bring him home.

Whilst this project may have been Owen and Maggie’s brainchild, there was no expectation that their son would live there. But, once projects like these start, they snowball. Local councils begin to see the need in their county. And from this, those people with autism, who had been placed miles away from their family, can be accommodated back in their home county.

Funding the project

To fund the project, we needed fundraising opportunities, and a band of merry volunteers to support our events. 

Take a look at some of our most popular events:

Supporting young families

Whilst EAST was predominately about fundraising for Juniper House, the charity also provided other invaluable services to parents.

Enabling Through Information

EAST received BT sponsorship to develop an ‘Enabling Through Information’ pack, largely complied by Owen’s wife, Maggie. 

It contained a wealth of information on autism and where to get support:

  • How to get statements
  • Suitable education
  • How to source care placements
  • Where to find respite care and get it funded
  • Contact numbers for support groups
  • Contact details and information about funding bodies, and much more besides.

It was a means of empowering parents at a time when they were at their most vulnerable.

Meetings and autism-friendly creche

EAST also ran a monthly meeting at the Children’s Development Centre at the Addenbrooke’s hospital’s Rosie Maternity unit.  It included a children’s creche to give parents respite time.

This allowed parents to take part in the meeting and discuss their problems, current issues, etc. 

An unexpected part of my role, therefore, was the support of families.

Telephone support

When I took the role, I was to be a fundraiser.  It never even crossed my mind that I would be in touch with families of autism. 

But as we worked out of the family home, we were a hotline for families.  Many had just received a diagnosis about their child and were desperate for support and information.  

Owen and Maggie were often out on other family or EAST orientated meetings.  So I was the one often answering the phone during the day. 


Although initially unprepared, it transpired that I had a natural talent for empathy and support of families in need.  I was a friendly voice helping to provide information and support in what I soon learned could be their darkest hour. 

Of all the vital skills I learned working at EAST, I believe this ability to support and empower people has been the driving force through my career. 

My work choices may have taken me down a path of Information Technology.  But it is this skill which has been one of the overriding reasons that I secured the roles:

  • IT Support worker at Meldreth Manor School for profound disabilities
  • Assistive Technology specialist at Long Road 6th Form College
  • Computer officer and latterly Front-Line Services IT Manager at the University of Cambridge

They all draw on my ability to empathise, empower and understand the needs of those who struggle with accessing IT.


You can find out more about EAST and its activities on Owen’s website. He has managed to locate newspaper articles of EAST’s activities which he has posted on his Press Clippings page.

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