Tina Wallace tells Ivan Little how she and estranged husband, former Ulster and Ireland rugby star Paddy, are united in a bid to overturn a decision to remove their boy’s full-time classroom assistant
'My son PJ copes well with his autism and ADHD but his dyslexia means he can't read or write and his self-esteem is at rock bottom ... this news from the Education Authority has devastated us all'
Tina Wallace once famously rubbed shoulders with celebrities like Rory McIlroy, Jimmy Nesbitt and Michael O'Neill as she launched her star-studded campaign to raise the awareness of autism that has blighted the lives of her son and thousands of other people in Northern Ireland.
But now, two years on, Tina is fighting a lonelier, less high-profile battle on behalf of 11-year-old Paddy Jack (PJ) to stop education officials in Belfast removing the full-time classroom assistant for her son who can't read or write.
Beautician Tina, who is in the process of getting divorced from her husband, the former Ulster and Ireland rugby star Paddy Wallace, says she is prepared to fight the move by the Education Authority all the way.
And she says her estranged husband is fully behind her. "We are a united team on parenting," she says. "We are very together on this and we agree it wouldn't be right to take PJ's help away from him."
And Tina also fears her son is not the only child to be affected.
"I have also been told that cuts like this are happening right across Northern Ireland and, as an advocate for autism, I believe PJ's story should be heard.
"I would like to hear from anyone else who has been affected by similar withdrawals of support."
Two years ago, before their split, Tina and her husband launched the Paddy Wallace Fund for Autism at a glittering gala ball in Titanic Belfast attended by a galaxy of celebrities.
The black-tie function received huge media coverage and the fund is still in operation with Paddy Wallace at the helm.
Paddy Jack, who is a pupil at Campbell College junior school, spent two years in an intensive learning unit at Harberton Special School in south Belfast before returning to Campbell.
In addition to his autism he has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a rare form of dyslexia which has been the cause of most concern.
Tina says: "PJ copes well with his autism and his ADHD, but with the dyslexia he cannot read or write. His self-esteem and confidence is at rock bottom and this news from the Education Authority has devastated us all."
Tina says she was informed by PJ's principal that his assistant was being withdrawn because she was no longer needed.
"Their argument makes no sense as nothing in PJ's life has changed. If anything, his educational needs are even more specific and the support he receives one-to-one is vital to him," adds Tina (42).
For the last four years at Campbell and at Harberton, PJ has had a full-time classroom assistant who scribes for him and reads for him.
Tina says: "The Board are arguing that PJ is in a small class and as there is another child receiving 25 hours of support, they can share an assistant. But their needs are totally different."
Tina says she believes the scrapping of PJ's assistance is a cost-cutting exercise, adding: "There's no government here now. So who is making these decisions?"
Tina has enlisted the backing of the Alliance Party and special needs advisers and charities for an appeal against the move.
An Education Authority (EA) spokesperson said: "EA is unable to comment on circumstances relating to individual children.
"EA continues to work with schools and parents to provide appropriate support in line with children's assessed needs."
Tina says PJ isn't aware yet of the imminent loss of his assistant but she's determined to get him all the support she can.
She adds: "He's a very intelligent, bright child and his cognitive ability is the average for his age. But the dyslexia is blocking his ability to learn.
"He has 45 sight words that he can recognise and he can identify the letters in the alphabet based on objects.
"It's very frustrating for him. He feels very different because he can't do what his peers do in class.
"He has taught himself an 'I can't do attitude' to protect himself. He sometimes says he feels that he is stupid but he's not. His last report was all As and Bs."
Tina says PJ's vocabulary is 'amazing', with the words picked up from television, YouTube and listening to adult conversations.
She adds: "He loves hearing the likes of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and I read to him and his sister Leila every day."
Next year the plan is for PJ to go to Longstone Special School, a modern learning facility at Dundonald, where he will be taught practical skills to prepare him for later life.
Tina says: "We have heard of lots of people who can't read or write but who have become radiologists and the like.
"We know PJ has the intellectual ability but it's just trying to find something for him that will allow him to focus his intelligence on, without reading or writing."
PJ is also an enthusiastic gamer who has impressive skills on the computer, and Tina says that he has shown talent as a sportsman. "But he doesn't like sport, not even rugby," she adds. "We don't know why that is but we're hoping that will change though we accept PJ as he is."
His father won 30 Ireland caps and played in his country's Grand Slam-winning campaign in 2009. Paddy turned out 189 times for Ulster but his career was hit by injuries including a cruciate ligament setback in February 2013. He announced his retirement the following year.
Tina says she won't back down from her new campaign on behalf of their son, adding: "I think the authorities are hoping that as there are only four months of the academic year left we will just accept their decision but they couldn't be more wrong because they are four important months for Paddy Jack."
Proud of how her son is coping with his condition, and determined to see him achieve his full potential, Tina says it's important to break down preconceptions about autism: "I am keen to let more people know about children like Paddy Jack.
"For me it's not just about PJ. It's always been about fighting for everyone with autism to make sure they get what they need and deserve. People's perceptions are changing all the time and no children with autism are the same."
Tina says she used to try to hide PJ's autism.
"But now if I am out in public and he's doing something a little bit odd I just say that Paddy Jack has autism.
"And people don't treat him like a bad child. They treat him like a child who has a difficulty and they embrace it."
She adds: "He's actually really well-behaved. And we are very lucky with Paddy Jack because he is so popular. He has lots of friends at school.
"He used to be very introverted but now he will speak to everyone including adults.
"He was taught a lot of coping strategies at Harberton and that's why so many of these special schools are so good.
"PJ doesn't give me many difficulties at all. In fact, he's the perfect child in lots of ways."
Autism: the facts
• The term 'autism' is used to describe a spectrum of conditions, including Asperger Syndrome and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA).
• Without understanding, autistic people and families are at risk of being isolated and developing mental health problems.
• Autism is much more common than many people think. There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK - that's more than 1 in 1000. If you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.
• Autism doesn't just affect children. Autistic children grow up to be autistic adults.
• Autism is a hidden disability - you can't always tell if someone is autistic.
• While autism is incurable, the right support at the right time can make an enormous difference to people's lives.
• 34% of children on the autism spectrum say that the worst thing about being at school is being picked on.
• 63% of children on the autism spectrum are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them.