In her own words, Christine McGuinness shares her thoughts about life with her six-year-old twins Leo and Penelope, and Felicity, three…
Some people might see having three children all with autism as unlucky, but I think it’s a blessing because I don’t know any different.
I always longed to be a mummy, and even as a teenager I looked at boyfriends I was dating and wondered whether they’d make good dads.
I didn’t have a father growing up, I was raised by a single mum, so I always craved that family unit.
I was 19 when I met Paddy, then a comedian who hadn’t done much TV. We laughed a lot and got on so well.
Fourteen years older than me, I thought his partying days were behind him, and decided he was perfect. We married in June 2011.
It took a long time to get pregnant. As a teenager I’d had anorexia for 10 years, which affected my fertility.
Then, after a couple of years of trying, I was also told I had polycystic ovaries. Every month was heartbreak.
Eventually, after four years of not using contraception, we were over the moon to fall pregnant naturally. When the scan showed two heartbeats, well, we’d won the lottery!
We nicknamed them our ‘Twinkles’ and excitedly planned how we’d travel together for Paddy’s work and imagined lovely family holidays.
Of course, the practicalities of travelling with twins was harder than we imagined. So while Paddy worked away from our Cheshire home, I stayed with them.
I adored Leo and Penelope but I didn’t have any help. I didn’t socialise at all, so to be honest I had no one to compare the twins with.
I just thought they were perfect and gorgeous – they still are. But looking back, the signs of autism were there.
They walked on tiptoes, refused solid food, and didn’t like busy places, such as soft play.
They were over-sensitive to sounds, so a doorbell or hair dryer would frighten them.
Whereas most toddlers start saying a few words, our twins were non-verbal until they were four.
I desperately longed to hear them say ‘Mummy’, but got nothing.
It upset me every time I went to school and saw another child run to their mum and give them a kiss and cuddle, because mine were off in their own little world.
It fell into place when they were three and a half and we got the diagnosis.
Paddy took it hard and had some therapy. My attitude was, ‘This is what God’s given us, we love them and will raise them as best we can.’ I let off my steam at the gym.
By 2016, our third child Felicity arrived. Like the twins, she suffered terrible reflux and was even hospitalised as a baby, as we tried different types of milk, bottles and then medicine.
Paddy slept in the spare room so he could get up for work and I found a night nanny, but there wasn’t a single time when I felt I could hand over the baby! I sent her away and apologised for wasting her time.
When Felicity was six months old she started tensing her body. It’s called ‘stimming’ when children with autism get excited.
It’s a lovely little cute thing, but I thought ‘Uh-oh, here we go…’ But it was easier by then, because we saw the signs and we knew about autism.
I never think, ‘Why me? Why do I have three children with autism?’ I am made of strong stuff, I was dragged up on a tough council estate in Liverpool, I can handle anything.
I never stop being grateful for having a lovely home and a car that works. But I do think, ‘Why them? Why do they have to deal with this?’ And that breaks my heart.
Children with autism can confuse emotions at times, so they might not smile when happy, or they might laugh when upset. It’s difficult for them to accept change in their routine.
In the morning, mine all like different kinds of toast, so that takes ages.
Leo doesn’t like to touch it, so we have to cut it up and put it into his mouth.
Food has to be beige and dry, like chicken nuggets, fries, crackers and crisps. Nothing ‘wet’ like lasagne or pasta.
Their eyes are sensitive to sunlight, it’s very common in autism, so we don’t open the blinds at home.
At bedtime I can be up and down the stairs all night making sure they’ve got the right teddy bear.
They don’t go to kids’ parties – I say to other parents, please invite them so they feel included, but play centres and bowling alleys don’t work for us.
Holidays are hard. We tried a week in Majorca for the first time last year.
But there was so much preparation, showing them pictures and taking them to the airport beforehand.
We could stay in the UK, but the children get unsettled out of their routines regardless of where we are.
Paddy and I have tried having date nights, but there’s so much to organise first we’re exhausted by the time we get out.
We often attend things separately. It’s a bit rubbish, but this is our life right now, it might change as they get older.
We always wanted a big family but it wouldn’t be fair on them to have more.
Our hands are already full, and Paddy’s had a vasectomy now. I think I’ll always want more, though.
All mums are amazing in my eyes, our circumstances are a little different to others, but the good times outweigh the bad.
Children with additional needs make you appreciate tiny milestones other parents take for granted.
They inspire me to be a better person and give me a purpose in life I didn’t have before.
They’re doing really well with their speech now. They don’t talk like other children, but they can say, ‘I love you Mummy’, which is the best sound in the world. This year, I’ll be cherishing my special Mother’s Day cards forever.
What are the signs of autism?
Trudi Beswick of Caudwell Children, a charity providing practical and emotional support for children living with different conditions, explains: ‘Autism can present very differently in people, and children can “mask” behaviours, so a diagnosis requires a multidisciplinary team of professionals.
'Common signs may include developing strict/repetitive routines, and experiencing difficulty in communicating or responding to social situations. Some children may become upset when exposed to certain sights, sounds, smells or tastes.’
At what age does autism usually present?
‘It’s a life-long condition, how and when it affects people differs individually.
'Some parents recognise signs as early as two years old, but it’s not possible to give a formal diagnosis then, as some behaviours may be a natural part of childhood development. A formal diagnosis is only usually possible at four. Some people aren’t diagnosed until they are adults.’
What should a worried parent do?
‘If you feel your child is not developing like siblings or friends, discuss your concerns with your GP or with a school’s Special Educational Needs (SEN) staff, asking for a referral to an autism assessment service if necessary. With the right diagnosis and support, autistic children can grow up to lead independent and fulfilled lives.’
How can friends and relatives help?
‘Be open and honest. Ask what you can do to make social situations better for their child – some small, reasonable adjustments to environments or our own behaviours can help make everyone feel included. Remember that autism can be very different for different people. Treat everyone as an individual and get to know them.’
– Caudwell Children are passionate about giving autistic children and their families the choice, opportunity and dignity they deserve. To donate or find out more, click here
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