Autistic son inspires Bewilderwood boss
The man who turned a little corner of Norfolk into a magical tree house wonderland wants to help transform the real world for autistic children and their families. Tom Blofeld talked to ROWAN MANTELL about his autistic son, his dreams of more Bewilderwoods and his very silly socks.
Rufus is not yet four, but he's already an inspiration.
The little boy who struggles to understand the world around him is the reason hundreds of people will be wearing silly socks next weekend.
He is also the reason his dad, who created the massively popular visitor attraction Bewilderwood, is about to become vice president of the charity Autism Anglia.
Tom Blofeld is the son of a high court judge, the nephew of a nationally treasured cricket commentator and the grandson of another Thomas Blofeld whose name was used by a fellow Eton schoolboy, Ian Fleming, for the arch-villain of his James Bond books.
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Today's Tom is the latest in many generations of Blofelds to live in the large and lovely family hall at Hoveton.
Soon after Bewilderwood opened and Tom's first children's book was published, he and his American film critic wife Leslie, welcomed their first baby into their fun-filled, busy, successful world.
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It seemed a charmed life.
But 10 months on Leslie began to fear that something was not quite right with their beautiful baby.
'I remember thinking, 'He's not making eye contact, or responding to his name, or making any effort to talk. Maybe something is up,'' she said.
Just before his third birthday Rufus was diagnosed as autistic.
He's a lovely little boy, eager to play, tender with his two-year-old sister Evie and enthralled by trains.
Tom Blofeld is currently planning a new Bewilderwood near Manchester – with trains.
'It's kind of for Rufus. But I love trains too!' said Tom.
Alongside planning a bright future for Bewilderwood, Tom is also acutely aware of what the future might hold for Rufus.
It is one of the reasons he agreed to become vice president of Autism Anglia and he has thrown himself into autism awareness with the same energy he deployed to create Bewilderwood.
'I, like everyone else, had seen Rain Man. That was almost the full extent of my knowledge!' he admitted.
'There was one little point where you sort of mourn the imaginary child they might have been. I became really upset that he wouldn't play cricket and football, but that was really silly because he might have hated cricket and football anyway!'
Autistic children often struggle to understand the conventions of team games, but Tom said: 'Rufus is still Rufus and if you love your child, you love your child. Rufus is loved for who he is.'
Rufus likes trains and tractors and playing in the sand and, of course, Bewilderwood. But the normal sights and sounds of childhood sometimes overload his senses. One theory is that autistic people struggle to filter out peripheral noise or action so that their world becomes distracting and distressing. Tom, who has already created his own fantasy worlds in Bewilderwood, and in his books, is now determined to try and mould a real world which can include Rufus and people like him.
Autism Anglia is expanding its services into Norfolk and is focusing on helping autistic people beyond the age of 19.
Next Saturday is Autism Awareness Day and Bewilderwood will be raising money for Autism Anglia with discounted entrance for anyone wearing silly socks, and a donation to the charity for every silly sock spotted.
'I think socks are intrinsically funny.
'Silly socks is the kind of joke Rufus would get!' said Tom.
Next year he is planning a special Bewilderwood day just for families with autistic children. He has a particular concern for siblings, who might miss out on fun because of an autistic brother or sister.
'Going out in public can be really difficult because of worry that the child might have, for want of a better word, a freak-out. Here, there will be no-one who doesn't understand,' he said.
Tom and Leslie know their commitment to Rufus, and now many more local autistic people, must not deprive Evie of attention. 'They are only a year apart and they are very fond of each other, but I do always worry because I want Evie to have a normal childhood,' said Tom.
But with one of the country's top children's destinations in the back garden and with all that Blofeld heritage, neither Rufus or Evie is likely to have an average childhood. Tom's irrepressible sense of humour will see to that too. Rufus is some way from understanding the real world around him, let alone his fictional heritage, but Tom was unable to resist choosing a white cat as the latest Blofeld family pet.
'He sits there stroking his white cat!' said Tom.
But this Blofeld is undoubtedly the hero of the piece.