How a friendship forged at university and one very special little Belfast girl led to telly star Katie Derham becoming patron of a new NI autism centre
The BBC Proms host and Strictly veteran tells Lee Henry why she’s delighted to back a venture that will help the daughter of a close pal she first met at Cambridge
When BBC Proms presenter and Strictly Come Dancing alumni Katie Derham was asked to become patron of a new state-of-the-art autism centre in Northern Ireland - the likes of which have never been seen anywhere in the UK - she didn't hesitate to answer in the affirmative.
"I said yes straight away," she tells me over the phone from her London home. "It's a subject close to my heart. I've been a supporter of the National Autistic Society for decades and I'm very proud to be patron of what will be a transformative facility for so many hundreds of families across Northern Ireland.
"When you're in the media, it seems such a given that you are able to communicate, but there are lots of wonderful people out there who are wired in a completely different way and need help and support and to be understood. Lots of things can be done. I've always been optimistic in that sense, so anything I can do to help, I do."
The request to get involved came from a close personal acquaintance, Belfast-based Dolores Rooney (46), whom Katie met in the late 1980s when the two attended the prestigious Magdalene College at Cambridge University.
"My now husband, James (48), had taken up a place at Magdalene the year before, in 1988," recalls Dolores, who studied history at the time.
"Katie was in his year, studying economics. She was part of the very first admittance of female students into the college, in fact, which was, until that point, very traditional.
"But it was a friendly place too, and naturally all of the women students there stuck together.
"When I began my studies, I became friends with Katie almost straight away. She was from the north of England, very warm, likeable and great fun to be around. We really clicked from the start."
Dolores and James were married in England in 1996 and worked there as a lawyer and teacher respectively until the urge to return home to Northern Ireland proved too strong to ignore. They settled in Belfast in 2000 to raise a family of four.
"The Good Friday Agreement had just been signed," says Dolores, "and Belfast seemed to have come through the worst of the Troubles, so it felt like the right time for us to come home, though we had loved our time in England.
"We had had children by that point - now we have Seamus (19), Eve (18), Lucia (13) and Thomas (6) - and we wanted to be near to our families.
"We put down roots in a very mixed area of east Belfast, and I now work as an employment law consultant. We love it here."
Dolores and Katie have remained firm friends ever since their university days, attending each other's weddings - "Katie wasn't yet famous for being on TV when she attended mine," says Dolores - and seeing each other as often as possible.
Katie is proud to have played a small part in the life of Dolores' third child, Lucia, who was diagnosed with autism aged just 20 months and subsequently a rare chromosomal abnormality known as IDIC 15, which very few people in Northern Ireland live with.
"I just adore Lucia," says the 47-year-old former BBC and ITN newscaster, who today is perhaps best-known for her Proms work on BBC Two and as the jovial presenter of Radio 3's Afternoon on 3.
"Unfortunately, I don't get to spend quite as much time with Lucia and her wonderful family as I would like.
"Lucia herself can't travel, so when Dolores and Jim come to visit us in England, they aren't able to bring her with them, but I've met her on the times that I've been in Belfast and she's a wonderful little girl.
"We have a lot in common as families, but it's pertinent and poignant to understand the challenges that they are facing, as opposed to the challenges that we're facing raising children of a similar age.
"As Dolores and James have navigated their way through all the challenges - the highs and the lows - of looking after a child who is severely autistic, I've tried to help as a good friend of the family."
Dolores had concerns for Lucia from soon after she was born. Having already had two children, she recognised unusual behaviour in her third-born. "Lucia was exceptionally placid," she says, "so at six weeks I took her to A&E, but they told me that she was just a sleepy baby and I should take her home and enjoy her.
"But at nine months, she started to fail hearing tests and she wasn't hitting her milestones, like other children her age usually are.
"That's when we started into the pipeline of going to see paediatricians and embarked on an early intervention programme - ABA therapy - trying to do as much for Lucia as we could at an early stage in her development."
Dolores and her family were relieved to learn that Lucia's condition was not genetic, and therefore not hereditary, meaning that none of her children will pass it on to theirs.
She is also full of praise for the work done at Tor Bank Special School in Dundonald, where Lucia has been a student from the age of five.
"She will stay there until she's 18," she says. "It means she has continuity in her life. She knows all the staff by now, even the receptionist and the bus drivers, and she's built up those connections over the years.
"It's a great facility. They have speech and language therapy, and she's familiar with the routine there."
When Lucia was diagnosed, Dolores visited Katie in England. By then flying high in the media world, Katie had also been volunteering with autism charities and was able to impart some welcome advice.
When it later came to identifying a patron for the forthcoming autism centre, Dolores didn't think twice about asking her friend.
According to Dolores, the new centre, which will be located in Carryduff, will be a unique facility designed to help children living with autism to succeed in society as functioning adults.
"It's been exciting to be a part of it," she says. "It has very simple features, like laundry rooms, which most of us would take for granted, but lots of autistic kids know nothing about.
"It also has multi-sensory rooms and places where the children can relax and de-stress. The facilities really are ground-breaking.
"I was surprised to learn that there is nothing like it in England or Scotland, so we're very proud that we're leading the way and also that Katie is involved as patron.
"We couldn't have asked for anyone better."
Katie is in Belfast today to co-host a special autism Christmas prom at the Fitzroy Presbyterian Church on Belfast's University Street, along with BBC Northern Ireland's Tara Mills. Katie says: "I've been to Belfast eight or nine times," she says, "for work and for pleasure, to see friends and family - my husband's best man is from Newtownards - and over a long period of time I have noticed enormous changes in the city.
"Belfast in particular is such an exciting, thriving, beautiful city. It's scenically stunning. I love the whole place, going out and about with my family. I'm a huge fan. I've always had a very nice time there. I can't wait to go back." The concert, organised by the National Autism Society in collaboration with Parkview Special School's RiChmusic programme, was conceived as a means of raising awareness of autism and celebrating the lives and achievements of those who live with it.
It will feature 11-year-old local YouTube sensation Kaylee Rodgers - whose lead vocal in Killard High School Choir's video version of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah went viral earlier this year - and Katie is looking forward to presenting the various performers.
"Funnily enough, this summer, for the first time, we had what was called the Relaxed Prom, which was specifically designed to be more accessible for all sorts of people with different learning disabilities, so that they could enjoy the music without feeling restrained," she says.
"It was a very different way to present the Proms, but music is transformative for everybody and those living with autism shouldn't be made to feel excluded.
"I hope the Belfast concert will be equally successful. I know that the organisers are extremely keen that as many people as possible attend.
"I'll be bringing my family with me to make a bit of a trip of it."
Both Katie and Dolores are happy to report that their friendship has transferred to their own children, with Katie's daughter Natasha and Dolores' daughter Eve now particularly close.
It was a relief for Katie when bonds of friendship were passed on to a new generation.
"It's sort of what you hope will happen when you've got really good friends and you both have teenagers - that they will get on because, otherwise, there are just a load of grumpy teenagers sitting around hating life," she laughs.
"But our kids get on like a house on fire and always have. Eve and Natasha bonded over musical theatre - they sing a lot to each other over social media, a lot of (the musical) Hamilton - and it's wonderful to see.
"Eve was also my biggest supporter in Belfast when I was doing Strictly - she mobilised the Northern Irish vote for me - so I'm eternally grateful to her for that."
Both Katie and Dolores light up when talking about Strictly.
"It was amazing to watch my friend dance so beautifully on the television," says Dolores.
Katie was, of course, memorably paired up with Strictly favourite Anton Du Beke as part of the 2015 series and famously made it to the final of the show.
It was a tense affair. She performed well throughout, scoring as high as 35 on two occasions, but found herself in the dreaded dance-off in the semi-final against Anita Rani and Gleb Savchenko. Katie and Anton made it through to the last four, ultimately coming fourth out of 15 couples in the year that Jay McGuiness jived his way to victory.
"It really is an out-of-body experience, being part of Strictly," Katie admits. "You really think about nothing but dancing and choreography and steps and sequences for the entirety of the duration that you're involved. But it's a fantastically well-made show - the costumes are so well made, the props, the hair and make-up, the music - and to be taught by a world-class professional like Anton, in any sphere of life, and have that one-to-one tuition day after day, is just incredible.
"It was exhausting, don't get me wrong. I was a shadow of my former self by the end of the show, but I wouldn't have changed anything about it for the world. It truly was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
Fans of the flagship BBC Saturday night show will be excited to learn that Katie will soon sashay onto our screens once again when the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special airs on Christmas Day.
"Yes, we're recording the show next week," she reveals, "and it's been great to get back into the swing of things.
"I'm really just gearing up for it now. It's much more relaxed and I hope that the judges get into the Christmas mood and take it easy on us dancers."
Those who wish to donate towards the funding of the autism centre can do so by phoning the National Autistic Society, tel: 028 9068 7066