'Having an autistic child is daunting, but there is help'

Ahead of Sunday's Belfast Telegraph RunHer event Una Brankin finds out the very special reasons why these women are taking part

Giving back: Julia and Nick Patterson with their children Christian, Lani and Jamie
Giving back: Julia and Nick Patterson with their children Christian, Lani and Jamie

Now in its seventh year, the Belfast Telegraph Runher event is all about getting women running – or walking – for great causes. An entertaining day out for all the family, Runher attracts more than 3,000 runners each year, from competitive runners to fun runners, to fitness fanatics to those who just want to get fit, along with schoolgirls, grannies, charity runners/walkers and workplace colleagues.

Charities represented at the event will include Action Cancer, SOS Bus NI, Marie Curie, MS Society, NI Hospice, Run in the Dark, MacMillan, Sands, Cash for Kids, Tiny Life, Clic Sargent, and NSPCC among others – including the organisations championed by the four featured Runhers here: Fiona McAvoy, Julia Patterson and mother-and-daughter team Danielle and Janet Mulligan.

Julia Patterson

Originally from Bangor, full-time mum Julia Patterson (43) lives in east Belfast with her photographer husband Nick and their children, Christian (7), Jamie (5) and Lani (15 months). Julia is taking part in the RunHer event to fundraise for Helping Hands Autism Support Group. She says:

My eldest son, Christian, who's now seven, was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum when he was four years old.

Autism is a hidden disability, in that the kids look normal, but it is very challenging for parents and there is a big problem with the general public's perception of autistic behaviour – or the acceptance of it, to be more precise.

When Christian is having a meltdown I'm very keenly aware of people not understanding, and even those who were previously friends, thinking 'that child needs a good smack'.

People judge you, and that has knocked the confidence out of me at times. Then there is the constant sleep deprivation, which is very wearying. And you need a lot of patience.

On the day of Christian's diagnosis, thankfully my husband Nick and I picked up a leaflet for Helping Hands Autism Support Group and we've found the help and support offered by them to be invaluable.

We have been going to sessions twice a week since Christian's diagnosis. At the beginning, it's very daunting when your child is diagnosed with autism, but the great thing about Helping Hands is that everyone there is in the same boat.

The group is run by parents for parents. Everyone there understands the challenges you face as a family dealing with autism. When your child is first diagnosed, certain social situations can fill you with dread, but Helping Hands has allowed Christian to practice his social skills in a safe, friendly environment.

Christian has loved going on summer schemes there, trips to the zoo, to the Transport Museum and weekends away. There's also great support for parents and grandparents. I'll be coming to Runher with Julie White who is a committee member at Helping Hands and who has an older son in his teens who is autistic.

Helping Hands was formed in 2008 by parents like Julie who wanted to build a better future for children with a diagnosis of Autism and Aspergers syndrome.

As Helping Hands is organised and managed entirely by volunteer parents, all of the funds raised go directly in assisting the families of these children, who often have co-existing conditions like epilepsy or ADHD. We take great pride in being able to help families have access to literature, equipment, training courses, therapies and facilities.

The support network they have created by bringing our families together has been invaluable in helping the family as a whole.

The free play sessions are open to the siblings of the children affected by Autism and Aspergers, therefore the isolation felt by the whole family is greatly reduced."

Danielle Mulligan

Danielle (20) is a student at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. She is running with her mother Janet (42), a cleaner. Danielle and Janet both live in Carrickfergus and are running for the Alzheimer's Society. Danielle says:

Mum and I are running in memory of my grandfather John Tate, who passed away from Alzheimer's disease in November 2012.

He was 74 and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2007, when he was 70. He wasn't too bad for the first three years but he then started hoarding things, like garden tools – he had four lawnmowers and four or five sets of the same tools. He'd be quite forgetful and he thought the remote control was a pair of binoculars!

Eventually he had to be taken into a care home because it was too much for granny Iris (72) to cope with. She had cared for him at home full-time for nine months but he also had diabetes and a heart condition, and he went downhill quickly after that.

This year Mum and I decided we wanted to do Runher so that we could do some fundraising for Alzheimer's Society NI. We're not really runners at all, but we wanted to choose a realistic distance to set ourselves a challenge and at the same time raise money for charity.

The Alzheimer's Society does great work here for families who are struggling like my family did. I even wanted to volunteer last year for them, but it was at a point when my granddad was very ill. Granddad was able to go out on regular days out with the charity. This made a big difference for my grandmother, who was then able to get a couple of hours to herself and some time to relax away from being a constant carer. Granddad also loved nothing more than getting out rather than being cooped up at home, or later, in the nursing home.

Alzheimer's totally changed my granddad. My nanny describes it as being like losing him before he was really gone. By the end, she was the only person he could recognise. My grandmother's sister also had the disease.

This is why mum and I decided we wanted to do something positive that would raise awareness about the illness and money as it is something that affects so many families."

Fiona McAvoy

Fiona (47) from Greyabbey is a breast cancer survivor and helps run her husband Robin's private coach/bus business. They have two daughters, Chloe (15) and Afrik (13), and a son, Tom. She is raising funds for Diabetes NI. She says:

Running has played an important part in my life since I was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. I was in the shower and noticed a lump in my breast, which was lucky because I didn't do regular checks. There's no history of breast cancer in my family, but that's no excuse. I was just about to turn 40 – one of those landmark birthdays dreaded by many. My 40th year turned out to be one of the most difficult in my life: I was diagnosed shortly after my birthday in April 2006. I had a lumpectomy and all my lymph glands removed as a precaution.

I then had a gruelling time with surgery, chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy and an intravenous course of Herceptin. Once safely through the initial treatment, I began a five-year course of the drug Tamoxifen. I was very lucky I found the lump early.

It was around this time that I began to run. One of the side effects of taking Tamoxifen led to my weight ballooning and I found that running was a fantastic way to get the weight under control again.

Cancer was actually the catalyst for me to start running – soon I was hooked. I took part in my first 5k at the 2008 Race for Life. Since then I have done so many 5k, 10k and half marathons; some for fitness and some to raise funds for charity.

Running gives you a real goal to aim for, I think it has really helped me through some very hard times.

I am running at this Belfast Telegraph Runher event to raise funds for Diabetes NI. I was diagnosed as being diabetic 13 years ago when I was pregnant with Afrik. I have been on daily insulin shots ever since. I think it's important to give something back.

While I don't raise money for charity for every running event that I do, I try to do a few fundraising runs every year. This will be the first time I've raised funds for Diabetes NI. I'm coming with two other friends who are also raising funds for this charity."

It’s not too late to go the distance...

* The Belfast Telegraph RunHer 5k and 10k take place at Stormont Estate on Sunday

* Online registration for the event is now closed but you can still register on the day up until 1pm

* The £18 registration fee includes a goody bag with a RunHer T-shirt and other products

* There will also be spot prizes on the day from the sponsors Premier Inn Hotels, Pure Running and physiotherapy partner, Apex Clinic

* Packs will be available for collection from Pure Running, Wellington Place, Belfast from Thursday until Saturday

* Packs can also be collected on the day of the event at Stormont Estate from 10am-1pm

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