Co Down mum Sharon Fennell, whose son was diagnosed at the age of two, now wants to help other families cope.
Co Down mum-of-three Sharon Fennell wants to give a voice to families of children with autism which is why she has become an Autism Action Network Ambassador for the National Autistic Society in Northern Ireland.
Sharon’s middle child Ryan (11) was diagnosed with the condition when he was two years old.
She is also single mum to Tara (13) and Michael (9) and while she would be one of the first to admit that bringing up a child with autism can be tough at times, overall Sharon’s outlook is refreshingly positive.
“The world is so diverse and in my opinion it is a better place because of people like Ryan who think a bit differently.
“It doesn’t make me sad that he needs extra help. All I want is for him to continue to develop and flourish and get the best education he can and get by and be safe.”
While an autism diagnosis can be devastating, there is also incredible joy as Sharon shows in her description of her very special son. “Ryan is a fantastic child. He loves dressing up, bowling and swimming and can make a great bowl of chicken noodle soup.
“He has made loads of friends at his school, Tor Bank in Dundonald, and knows just about everybody there by name. Anyone he encounters but doesn’t know, he asks, “and your name is?”
“He loves school dinners and vanilla milkshakes. He’s fiercely protective of his big sister Tara and younger brother Michael, and won’t hear a bad word said about either of them!
“Ryan loves watching children’s films and TV shows and uses lots of quotes from these to spice up his speech.
“He has become increasingly proficient in making his own films using pictures he’s drawn on the computer set to music and dialogue he’s recorded himself.
“Recently he’s started to add subtitles to some of his films and he can do seriously impressive things with animation software.”
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people.
It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways.
Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.
People with autism may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.
Sharon suspected her baby had autism before his diagnosis at the age of two.
She said: “He was slow to develop compared to his sister. As he got older he wasn’t saying very much and wasn’t keeping up with his peers.
“He wasn’t making eye contact when I nursed him and I remember looking up autism in a medical book but it was an old book and it said that children with autism often resisted being held, whereas Ryan was a very needy baby and wanted to be in my arms all the time.”
When it was confirmed that he did have the condition, Sharon immediately went online to find out as much as she could.
She also contacted the National Autistic Society who proved a huge support and shortly after joined her local support group where other parents proved a real lifeline.
She said: “It was great to meet other parents in the same situation and I’ve found that you can get through the hard times together, supporting each other.
“It was good to get an understanding of how other parents’ coped and to get hints and tips and it helped open my eyes to how Ryan was communicating.
“It helped me to understand that if he isn’t talking that doesn’t mean he isn’t communicating.”
For Sharon, raising any child presents challenges and rewards and she believes that being a parent means you have to expect the unexpected.
She said she wouldn’t change a thing: “Ryan’s autism is an integral part of who he is and while it can present challenges I wouldn’t want him to be anyone other than the adorable and quirky child who makes me laugh every day.
“Who wouldn’t love the boy who when protesting getting out of bed in the morning tells you, ‘I need to stay here, my public needs me!’
“He needs more structure, support and supervision than non-disabled children of his age but like all children, with the right supports in place, he is constantly learning and making progress. I am grateful to the wonderful and understanding staff at his school and wish all children with autism could access the educational environment they deserve.
“Ryan’s behaviour when we’re out and about can raise eyebrows as he acts in ways very unlike typical 11-year-olds.
“When he's distressed or anxious, he may shout film quotes that help him express his feelings. I just try to ensure he and others are safe and ignore the few people who share their disapproval and unsolicited parenting advice, knowing that he will be calm again soon so long as I focus on supporting him.”
Sharon, who is a full-time mum, decided to devote her spare time to the Autism Society becoming an ambassador in 2011.
Since then she has been working with the charity to raise awareness and campaign for a better world for people affected by autism.
help is just a phone call away