HRH Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, followed in the footsteps of her sister-in-law the Princess Royal when she officially opened a £3million extension to the National Autistic Society s Broomhayes School and Children s Centre in Bideford on Friday. Prince

HRH Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, followed in the footsteps of her sister-in-law the Princess Royal when she officially opened a £3million extension to the National Autistic Society's Broomhayes School and Children's Centre in Bideford on Friday.

Princess Anne opened the original complex in 1994.

During an hour-and-a-half at the school the royal patron made a big impression with staff, students and special guests as she toured the complex and chatted easily.

She looked in on lessons and chatted with students about their work, about football, films and the music of Michael Jackson.

Nineteen-year-old student Jasmin Ellis made sure the Countess missed none of the new facilities as she led her on a whirwind and fun-filled tour.

The Countess then unveiled a plaque in the gymnasium and was presented with gifts by day student Grace Deeming, 16. These were a book of students' pictures, depicting what royalty means to them, and a pot plant.

She thanked Broomhayes for the gifts and for inviting her and especially Jasmin for the tour and congratulated all associated with the project, which had provided Broomhayes with both new buildings and a new future, she said.

The Countess has been patron of the NAS since taking over the role from Princess Anne in 2003.

NAS Broomhayes celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, originally set up in Westward Ho! before moving to its present site in Alverdiscott Road, East-the-Water, Bideford, in 1994.

The school now provides year-round education and 24-hour residential care for up to 35 children and young people with autism and associated conditions. The extension provides a new further education college, new residential facilities and upgraded accommodation with buildings which will allow the school to accommodate eight extra students and cater for young people up to the age of 21, instead of its previous upper limit of 19 years.

It employs a staff of 200.