TV presenter Paddy McGuinness and his wife Christine are due to share their family’s experience of autism in a BBC documentary.
All three of their children have been diagnosed with autism – as has Christine, 33 – and Paddy, 48, told the Radio Times that they decided to let cameras into their Cheshire home in the hope that “other families might not feel so alone or isolated”.
This ‘raw and intimate’ documentary follows the family at home and as they meet other parents, experts and people on the autism spectrum, including former Manchester United footballer Paul Scholes, who has a 16-year-old non-verbal autistic son.
The documentary is being hailed as an important insight into the difficulties faced by autistic people (there are around 700,000 in the UK).
Peter Watt, managing director of national programmes at the National Autistic Society, says there’s “simply not enough support or understanding for autistic people and their families” but that it’s important to show the positives too.
He says: “Almost everyone has heard of autism now, but not enough people appreciate what it’s actually like to be autistic.
Not just understanding how hard life can be if you don’t have the right support, but celebrating the different perspectives, passions and skills autistic children and adults can have. Autistic campaigners are changing this.”
While every parent is likely to experience difficulties from time to time, autistic children face specific and sometimes significant challenges, he says. “Everything’s much harder if, like many families, you have to wait many months or even years for a diagnosis and then even longer for support.”
A diagnosis can be life-changing though, in terms of accessibility to the right support – which for children can include getting extra help from a teaching assistant at a mainstream school or securing a place at a specialist school, or simply finding some like-minded friends.
“No-one should have to put up with feeling judged for being different or have to wait years for support,” says Watt. The government’s recent five-year autism strategy for England promises to tackle many of these issues.
It is not clear what causes autism. (The NHS website states: “Nobody knows what causes autism, or if it has a cause”.)
If you have one child with autism, you won’t necessarily have another. But recognising the signs may be quicker in families that already have some experience with autism.
“We sometimes hear stories of people realising they’re autistic after their child or sibling is diagnosed,” says Watt (Christine McGuinness, for example, was diagnosed much later in life than her children Leo, Penelope and Felicity.).
“This comes from seeing similar traits in themselves, for instance, an over or under-sensitivity to light, sound or touch, challenges around communication and highly focused interests. There’s clearly a genetic element to autism and there is research that echoes this.”
Every person with autism is different but the core characteristics are similar, including under or over-sensitivity to light, sound or touch, challenges around communication and highly focused interests.
He wants to emphasise that there’s beauty in having children with autism though.
“I love each of my children for who they are and, like other parents, wouldn’t change them for the world.
As Christine McGuinness so eloquently puts it, ‘I don’t think my children need fixing, I think they’re amazing as they are.’”
Paddy and Christine McGuinness: Our Family and Autism airs this evening on BBC 1 Wednesday 1 December at 9 pm.
Visit autism.org.uk for more information and support.