Christine McGuinness 'didn't know what autism was' until she had her own kids

Welcome to Metro.co.uk‘s The Big Questions, where we ask, well, the big questions (and the smaller ones too) and this week, we’re diving deep with Christine McGuinness. 

The 33-year-old model and wife of Paddy McGuinness has shared her advice for parents of children with additional needs as she also opened up on her own experience of life with autism following a diagnosis just last year. 

She has been working with McCain and family funds to help other parents by raising awareness and vital funds to help those in need, as well as sharing their stories on her Table Talk podcast with Paddy. 

Tell us about the Table Talks podcast and the impact it’s had on you and Paddy?

I’ve worked with McCain before on a previous campaign and when they came back and said they were doing this podcast for Family Fund, straight away I was like “Yes, I want to be involved.” I think it’s amazing what they’re doing and it’s just brilliant to be able to talk to other parents about everyday moments of what life is like with children with additional needs. It’s been really good for us.

We talk about different topics each week, so sometimes we spoke about siblings, communication, the pandemic, and one of them we did was about family holidays. For us, our experience of family holidays have been different to the families that we were talking to. So for us, it’s been quite a difficult challenge to try and get to that. 

For most families, it might not be a big deal to go on holiday every year. But for us, it’s not that easy. But then when we when we did go away – we’ve only ever been abroad once with the children – we had some very amazing moments, but it was the actual getting away and the preparation before it that was really very difficult. Just with the flight and all the changes, staying in hotels and the children being a different place – it was quite a lot for them to deal with. 

With the families that we spoke to, a lot of them had had support from Family Fund and some of them had had family holidays gifted to them, both abroad and in the UK and for them, their holidays were such an amazing experience and such an important thing for them, not just because financially, they struggled and wouldn’t have been able to have a holiday if it wasn’t for Family Funds, but because of the memories that they made.

I just remember listening to one mum tell me about seeing her children play in the sand for the first time and I remember that so well with ours, and I know how much that would have meant to her. That’s something that definitely wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for companies like McCain supporting it and pledging to give a million pounds over the next three years, which is just amazing. 

And they help with everyday items too. 

Yeah, and they’re just amazing. A lot of the families we spoke to, there are low income and they need extra help. Family Fund will help with anything from a microwave or an oven that somebody needed in the middle of lockdown and couldn’t afford, and couldn’t possibly arrange to get one fitted in their house, or it could be that a family needs sensory toys, or new clothes and shoes for the children. Hearing how much they have been helped and supported is brilliant. It’s needed. A lot of the families we spoke to were just so so grateful that there was somebody out there willing to help.

Has speaking to other parents of children with additional needs helped you personally?

Being a parent is isolating anyway. It’s hard – your social life goes out the window and it’s just difficult. I remember even just trying to nip into the Post Office when I had the twins with me was hard, you’re constantly struggling when you’ve got children. 

But when you’ve got children with additional needs, there’s places that you can’t really go to that everyone else seems to be going to. You see the whole Instagram life of other people at play centres or on holiday, at the airport and all of that, and you do have moments where you can just sit and think, “oh, we’re not doing that.” So you do feel alone. 

But when we’ve spoken to so many other parents on this podcast in the same situation, it’s nice to know that there’s other people out there feeling the same. And I think for them, it’s been lovely to give them a bit of a voice and a platform. There are so many families out there in similar situations, so we wanted to open up that conversation. 

What have you learned about parenting children with additional needs?

I think patience. I’ve got a patience that I didn’t know existed. It’s an absolute blessing, you’ve just got to be patient and know that things will happen in their own time. They are joining in with things that I never thought they would, they went to a Valentine’s disco a couple of weeks ago, which is something that I never thought in a million years that they would go into a room with other people and music really loud and lights flashing.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect. Penelope wasn’t happy and it was too much for her so she left, Leo joined in and he was fine. And then Felicity was somewhere in between. She wasn’t quite sure, but she was happy to be in the room. It’s just about taking things slowly and letting them lead when they are ready. And I’m trying not to push them too much where it’s going to cause a meltdown, but also pushing them in a way that encourages them to step out of their comfort zone sometimes.

How have they dealt with things going back to some kind of normal after lockdown?

I felt like we’d gone backwards a couple of years, I’m not gonna lie. There was some regression with the children with their speech and with socialising, that is something that doesn’t come naturally to our children. But it was something that they were doing brilliant at in school, they were doing really well mixing with other children and being around everybody else, they were eating in the canteen.

And then suddenly the pandemic happens and it was just the five of us at home all the time. So going back to school, we had to do it quite slowly for our children so they never went back full time, like most of the children did, they went back to two half-days a week and then we slowly increased it to five half-days and now they’re back on five full days at school. Because they’d regressed, going back full time would have just been too much for them.

So again, it’s just it’s taking their lead and waiting until they’re comfortable. And now they’re doing brilliant. They’re back to normal routines and they’re doing really, really well. But it did affect them for a couple of months. It took a while to catch up.

Were they aware of what was going on in the world at that time?

They’re young so they’re at an age where they didn’t understand it anyway, why people were wearing masks, and what’s been going on in the world. We didn’t tell them too much about it. And of course, sometimes they’d walk in the room and the news would be on but we just we never spoke about Covid because they’re children, you know, they don’t need any extra worries in life.

But they’ve coped really, really well and so thank God, they are back at school and back in a normal routine. There’s no teachers or pupils walking around with masks on anymore. They’ve done really well. Hopefully they won’t remember too much about it, because they’re so young.

Did your own diagnosis of autism make more sense after having kids? 

It only made sense afterwards. I’d never even heard of autism until our children were diagnosed. And then from that I went off and learned as much as I could possibly learn because I wanted to know all about the children and I wanted to know how to help and support them.

Whilst they were doing all of their assessments there was so, so much I just remember relating to. I was sitting in the room thinking “Why is that an issue? Because I’m like that.” And “It doesn’t matter that they eat beige food, I eat beige food,” and they used to talk about the socialising and I used to say, “Well, I never socialised, I didn’t have friends at school, I still don’t really have friends now.” And I remember thinking all of those things, but never saying it out loud for anybody.

So I couldn’t understand why the paediatricians were flagging all of these things up like it was a problem, because it was like they were just talking about me.  But then as time has gone on and more as the children are getting older, I see myself in them so much. It just made sense to me to go and explore it some more and then I got an official diagnosis last year. 

I struggled all through school, I struggled through my twenties with various different things and it was kind of like a lightbulb moment when I got that diagnosis. It was a huge relief, like a weight had been lifted off. Everything just made sense and it just confirmed everything I was thinking and feeling for the last couple of years.

What do you hope people take away from you speaking out about it?

We spoke to a mum on the podcast who was diagnosed later on in life as well, and she was exactly the same, she didn’t know about it. I suppose autism wasn’t spoken about so much years ago, the way it is now.

I think we’ve still got a long way to go for people truly understanding it and that’s going to be difficult unless you’ve actually got autistic children or people with autism in your family, to get a good understanding of it. But by talking about it during the podcast, in our documentary and in interviews like this, I want to just help people understand.

Christine McGuinness’s weekend:

It’s Saturday morning, what are you doing?

I’m at home with the children – weekends are all about the kids. I try and work while they’re at school from Monday to Friday so they don’t miss me at home. We always try and have one quiet day at the weekend – usually a Saturday after a busy week – and then one day out. Saturdays are just the five of us at home, we stay in our pyjamas and we eat what we want and chill out and have a nice day at home. 

What’s your ultimate Sunday film?

 I’m rubbish with films – I’ve only ever watched one film and that’s Dirty Dancing! I can’t stay focused so I pause it and I rewind it or I’ll start chatting and my husband just gets really impatient so he prefers to watch films on his own. I don’t sit and watch telly or anything, I’m always busy. I never really sit and just watch something.

What is your go-to brunch order?

 Smashed avocado with scrambled egg on sourdough bread. 

How have your weekends evolved?

I enjoyed going out having to dance a long, long time ago. But since my teenage years, my weekends have always been really, really quiet. It’s family time. I wouldn’t change it for the world – I absolutely love it.

Listeners can support families raising a disabled child, in urgent need, by heading to mccainfamilyfund.co.uk to learn more and donate.

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