“FAMILIES will suffer. They are cutting a vital lifeline.”

That was the message from angry parents after the Hampshire Autistic Society (HAS) announced that they would be closing the county’s only specialist school for autistic children next year.

Despite promises from bosses that the much-loved school would have two more years before its doors would close for good, parents and staff were given the devastating news that they would have just 12 months to prepare for the future.

The U-turn at the end of a lengthy consultation with parents has left them fearing for their children’s futures. They say they are unaware of another school that can provide the same level of specialist support for children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

But HAS bosses insist that the decision was taken with “a heavy heart”

with the closure blamed on lack of demand and financial pressures.

Tim Harpham, a school governor whose 19-year-old son has been at Hope Lodge for seven years, believes the school has been a Godsend to parents over the past 40 years and has vowed to continue the fight to save it from closure.

He said: “I believe in this school and the parents need this school. I am lucky that my son has benefitted from the service but I am angry about this decision and we will fight to save it for those still at the school and those children who will need it in the future.

“Hope Lodge is a real lifeline for families who will now suffer.

“These children should be pushed to reach their full potential but without this school they will be overlooked and their problems will get worse and worse.”

Blame for the closure has been placed on a lack of referrals due to Government policy of including children with specialist needs increasingly within mainstream education.

The result has been a reduced need for schools like Hope Lodge, which currently has 26 students, 15 of which are under 16.

The school also made an “unsustainable” loss of £475,000 at the end of the financial year in March.

When Hope Lodge closes next summer, the society plans to open a Life Skills College which will provide education, life skills and board for 16 to 25-year-olds at their community resource centre in Bassett.

Most of the Hope Lodge pupils will be old enough to attend the college by 2013 if they choose.

Bosses at the society, whose chief executive is Andrew Monaghan, believe the Life Skills College will meet a demand for further education for those with specialist needs, while providing them with vital life skills that will help them to lead a more independent life.

They also said it would be much cheaper, by employing fewer teachers and using their own site.

Robin Gow, head of finance, said: “The society recognises that this has been a very difficult time for everyone affected.

“Now the final decision has been made, we will work through the coming year to deliver the necessary transitions to support our students, their families and our staff teams.

“We would like to reiterate that this decision to close Hope Lodge was taken with a heavy heart.

“We are doing this because we have to but at the same time, the Life Skills College is a really exciting prospect.”

He added that the society was “hopeful” of retaining all staff affected – about 60 – by offering them alternative employment within the society.