When his daughter was diagnosed with autism, Boyzone’s Keith Duffy had a stark choice to make.
He could either hope his little girl, Mia, was able to thrive despite the limited autism services available in their homeland of Ireland – or he could use his determination to give his daughter the very best chance, coupled with his fame, to fight for better autism services for Mia and other children with autism.
He chose the latter. And now, more than 20 years after Mia was diagnosed with autism aged 18 months, it’s clear the singer and actor’s perseverance has paid off.
His daughter, who didn’t start trying to talk until she was seven years old, has gone from strength to strength, largely because of dogged Duffy determination.
Mia is now 22, in her fourth year at university studying enterprise computing, and has just been offered a great job by an American company.
Speaking before World Autism Awareness Day (April 2) and World Autism Acceptance Week (March 28 – April 3), her delighted dad, 47, says: “She’s doing wonderful – we’re very, very proud of her.
“Mia’s very determined. She puts a lot of pressure on herself, but she achieves a great amount, and that was all down to appropriate intervention at the right stage of her life, which we had to fight hand over tooth for, but we got there.”
Keith and his wife Lisa’s fight began after Mia started showing “funny little traits” as a very young child, such as putting one arm out and vigorously shaking, and lining all her toys up on the floor.
The couple already had a son, Jay, who’s nearly four years older than Mia, and had not seen this kind of behaviour before.
“She was doing all kinds of things that were alien to us and we thought there was something not quite right,” recalls Keith.
“Somebody suggested autism, but we had no idea what autism was at the time – we had no education on it and we didn’t understand it.”
The Duffys soon discovered there was at least a three-year waiting list for an autism diagnosis in Ireland. “Without an official diagnosis, we couldn’t avail of any services she might need,” explains Keith, “and anyone we spoke to that knew about it said early detection was essential for the future of the child.
“We were very distraught and upset at the time, as you can imagine – we didn’t know where we were going, or who to talk to. To get the diagnosis as soon as possible was my mission.”
After “pulling strings” they eventually managed to get Mia diagnosed, and Keith ruefully recalls: “It was soon after that that I realised the services Mia might need were certainly not available, even with the diagnosis.
In fact, the services in Ireland at the time for children on the spectrum were pretty much a disaster.
“So we realised if we wanted anything for our child we were going to pretty much have to provide the services ourselves.”
And that’s where Keith and his wife’s mission to help their daughter and other autistic children really began. He and Lisa contacted other parents who had children with autism “and that had no idea what the future held for them either,” and did plenty of research to educate themselves about the condition and available services.
Keith even took a sabbatical from his career to travel to a specialist autism centre in the US to learn how to home educate children on the autism spectrum through a form of education called ABA – applied behavioural analysis.
He also started a charity, Irish Autism Action, for children with autism in Ireland and their families, successfully lobbied the Irish Government to open a school that provided appropriate education and interventions for children with autism, which Mia eventually attended, and many years later also launched the Keith Duffy Foundation, which supports a number of children’s charities.
Keith has maintained his charitable work even though his daughter is now a successful independent woman, and he’s also busy with Boyzlife, a ‘supergroup’ he’s formed with Brian McFadden of Westlife. The pair have just finished their first studio album together, which comes out in May.
“We’re very busy promoting the album, there’s a big tour coming up next September, and we kind of have a new lease of life,” says Keith happily. “Here we are, 28 years after we started in the music business, and we’re starting to go back to do the same things all over again, and we’ve got great audiences, albeit they’re not 14 or 15 years of age anymore.
“Our audiences are more forties and fifties now, but as long as we have an audience to play to, we’re doing what we love to do, and it’s all great.”
So how does he find time for charity work as well as being a pop star?
“You find time, you put it in while you can,” he says. “I’m always working, helping various charities out. I have my own foundation here, but I do joint ventures with other charities, bringing my name and my fame to the forefront to create funding.
“I’ve a great deal to be grateful for. I’ve got a beautiful daughter that’s very, very happy – as a human being she’s one of the most beautiful people ever.
“People talk about children with a disability, but at the same time they have a lot of capabilities, so we always try to turn it into a positive. They’re children, they didn’t choose to have autism – they have so many qualities, so many abilities.
“Every single child is completely different – they can’t just be pigeonholed, they’re all individual human beings, and they need to be treated as such.”
He adds: “It’s possible for other people out there to have a child where they can’t see the wood for the trees and they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but my story’s a very positive one, and if I can help anybody else feel positive about their path going forward, or indeed guide them in the right direction, then I’m very, very happy to do that.
“You need determination, a lot of love, a lot of patience and a lot of drive, but there’s a massive light at the end of the tunnel if you’re prepared to give your child what they need and deserve.”
Keith Duffy is supporting a ZURU Toys campaign to encourage both neurotypical and neurodiverse children to thrive through playing with toys, after research for the ZURU Imagination Index found 70% of parents with a neurodiverse child use play and toys as a key way to discuss their differences and understand the ever-changing world around them.