“Paddy McGuinness and his wife Christine have three children, eight year-old twins Leo and Penelope, and five year-old Felicity. All three have been diagnosed with autism, a condition that means your brain works in a different way from other people, and can impact how you interact with the world.” This is the introduction to the information about the 60 minute BBC programme ‘Our Family And Autism’ featuring the McGuinness family, which aired on prime-time BBC 1 television.
So, what was it like, what was helpful in what Paddy and Christine shared, was there anything that was unhelpful, or even harmful? Everyone will have their own view on the programme, I encourage you to watch it for yourself and to form your own feelings about it, the link to watch it is here, followed by a few thoughts from me:
Our Family And Autism: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00122vl/paddy-and-christine-mcguinness-our-family-and-autism
- Language: It was great that Christine consistently used identity first language, ‘Autistic’ rather than ‘with/has Autism’. This was in contrast to some in the programme (see unhelpful/harmful, below).
- Understanding: Christine knows that her children understand and feel love. She was quicker to understand and accept that they are Autistic and looked for ways to support them. This, in part, may be due to what we find out about her later in the programme [spoiler alert: see later point below]. Christine was aware that Paddy found it harder, that they have been at different points on their journey since, that Paddy still struggles to understand their children.
- Girls: There was a great conversation that Christine and Paddy had with a Complex Needs Worker and a Paediatrician around topics including Autistic girls, masking, fitting in etc. Also, about how children can manage to hold it all together at school but then it all erupts when they get home to their safe place.
- School: Paddy visited Sedgefield Community College and spent time talking with some Autistic pupils there; it was great to hear from them and for their voices to be included.
- Depression: Paddy talked about how in the early days he became depressed, he talked about his emotions. This is so important for parents to be able to share about, and often dads can be worse at this so it was good to hear Paddy sharing about his feelings.
- Dads: Paddy talked with Paul Scholes, the former Manchester United and England footballer, who has a 16-year-old Autistic son, Aidan. Again, watching two dads sharing their experiences, their understanding, their journey, was really good to see. Dads need to share more, which is why I founded The Dads’ Fire Circle https://thedadsfirecircle.com
As Paddy said, talking helps.
- Myths: Paddy visited the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and spoke with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. Their conversation addressed and busted several ‘Autism myths’ including:
- Some of the scary ‘theories’ out there about the ‘cause’ of Autism e.g. vaccines.
- That there are no ‘cures’ for Autism, it’s a neurodiversity, a difference in the way the brain develops (an analogy of being ‘left handed’ was used).
- Gene’s: There was also a great conversation between Paddy and the Professor about gene’s and how each child is a ‘random shuffle’ of their parents gene’s. That at least 100 gene’s are associated with Autism. The Professor commented that Autism is a unique blend of strengths and challenges for each child (although these challenges can be societal).
- Stimming: Another great conversation was around ‘stimming’ and the need for Autistic children to stim, to regulate themselves.
- Autistic adults: Paddy and Christine went to visit a residential centre offering supported independent living where they met Luke, a young Autistic adult. It was great to hear from him as he shared some of his hopes for the future. They also met Maddie, another young Autistic adult who talked about her life, work, boyfriend etc.
- Diagnosis: [Spoiler alert!] Christine goes to visit Professor Baron-Cohen to discuss the results of her Autism Quotient (AQ) test. Her test results were much higher than Paddy’s. They talk about Christine’s life, her childhood, the test results etc. and it becomes clear that Christine is Autistic too. Her own acceptance and understanding of being Autistic, the answers that it gives her about herself and her children, was an important moment in the programme.
- Final thoughts: Both Christine and Paddy shared some final thoughts, both of which were important to hear:
- Christine: “There’s nothing wrong with our children, it’s that everyone around needs to understand and accept them more…”
- Paddy: “There’s no way we’re in a Disney movie and we’ll wake up tomorrow and everyone is accepting of everyone… but it is changing…”
- Language: Paddy often used person first language such as ‘with Autism’ or ‘has Autism’, although he did also use identity first language (‘Autistic’). Later, Paddy was clearly trying to explain the diversity of Autistic children, but tripped over phrases like “… at one end… at the other end… we’re somewhere in the middle..” which perpetuates the myth of Autism being ‘mild’ or ‘severe’. On the way to Sedgefield Community College he attempted a comparison between how “a child in a wheelchair” and “a child with Autism” might be viewed; comparisons between a physical disability and a neurodiversity can sometimes be difficult and unhelpful. A SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) teacher at the College also continued to use person first language (‘with/have Autism’).
- Love/Emotions: Paddy worried that the children didn’t understand and feel love, which of course they do, as Christine was quick to point out. It probably didn’t help Paddy that a Paediatrician told him that his children would have difficulty understanding emotion (which is also a myth).
- Headlock: Possibly the part of the programme that I found the most difficult was when Paul Scholes was talking about when his Autistic son was reacting to having a haircut and Paul ended up with him in a head lock. Haircuts can be a particularly distressing time for some Autistic children, and potentially dangerous physical restraint isn’t the way to respond to them struggling (see link to ‘Haircut Sir?’ blog post, below).
Overall, I thought the programme was much more helpful than unhelpful. People on social media were giving a range of opinions, but the target audience was the general public, as well as families of Autistic children, and they would have found plenty there to increase their awareness and understanding of Autism, which is no bad thing.
The programme provided a range of further information and support to anyone wanting to dig deeper, and here are some of those links:
Clips from the programme:
Links to information and support:
I hope this overview has been helpful, but do watch the programme for yourself and make up your own mind; the link to the BBC iPlayer page is at the top of this blog. Understanding and acceptance make a difference, and programmes like this help significantly with that; as Christine says, “There’s nothing wrong with our children, it’s that everyone around needs to understand and accept them more…”
On the journey…
Busting Ten Autism Myths
The Walk That Made me