By Eimhear McGurk
AN Omagh parent of three autistic children has decided to share details of her family’s daily life in a bid to “educate the public” about the condition.
Emma McNamee wants to raise awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – a lifelong condition which affects one in 34 children in the North.
Autism impacts upon the development of a person’s social and communication skills, and the signs typically appear during early childhood.
As a spectrum condition, ASD affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.
“My husband and I have three children – aged 12, eight and four – brought up in the same house by the same parents, yet they’re all completely different with their ASD,” explained Emma.
“There are good days and bad days, when the highs are so high and the lows are so low,” she added.
At the McNamee household, a typical morning begins with picture visuals.
These are cards used to help the children complete their morning routine such as brushing their teeth, putting on their shoes and having their breakfast.
Routine and repetitive behaviour can be a great source of comfort for those with autism, however even with this structure in place, not all mornings run smoothly.
“It does depend whether the kids are having a good day or a bad day,” said Emma. “We could have 20 meltdowns before we even get out the door or we could all be singing and dancing heading out to school.”
On top of the daily school runs, much of Emma’s week involves bringing the three children to various clinics for appointments – occupational therapy, physiotherapy, complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), continence services.
“It’s very full on,” she said. “But I cannot give enough praise to the fantastic staff at Omagh County Primary and Sacred Heart College for providing such great support to us.”
For the McNamee family communication is key, and upon picking her children up from school Emma has a daily debrief with each of their teachers to discuss how their day went.
“Sometimes it’s lovely, they’ve tried new foods or really stepped out of their comfort zone and achieved something massive.”
Then it’s home time, and back into the routine which includes homework.
“Homework can be a trigger point for all three so we try to have a schedule around that, so they know on the clock when work is done,” explained Emma.
“This is the most important part for all of us, knowing that the homework is finished.”
Upon completion of homework the children spend the rest of the evening playing in a special sensory room.
“Again this could all be plain sailing or you could have ten meltdowns in the middle of it, you just don’t know how it’s going to go,” said Emma.
“Then it’s bedtime.”
Although the daily routine is very demanding, Emma feels that the biggest challenge faced by families with autistic children is “a lack of understanding”.
“People pass comment on their behaviour, and not getting what’s actually happening can be such a big frustration,” said Emma.
“If the children are in a bit of a meltdown in public some people will tell them they’re ‘being bold’ or ‘Santa won’t come’ – but saying this actually makes things ten times worse.”
Emma firmly believes there is still a lack of awareness about autism and that much more should be done to educate the public about the condition.
As April is Autism Awareness Month, she felt this was the perfect time to share her family’s story.
“I don’t know if anyone can understand autism, we are 12 years into our journey and we still don’t… but hopefully this will help,” she said.
For more information about autism or to find out how you can get involved with Autism NI visit www.autismni.org/