PADDY McGUINNESS has made a career out of his northern banter and no-nonsense Top Gear persona.
But tonight fans will see a different side to the popular Lancastrian comic as he breaks down in tears telling of the impact his three autistic kids have had on his life.
He also reveals how the weight of it all made him spiral into a depression that saw him end up in therapy.
In a series of powerful scenes in Paddy And Christine McGuinness: Our Family And Autism, the 48-year-old reveals his fears that twins, Leo and Penelope, eight, and five-year-old Felicity’s diagnosis may mean they never know how much he loves them.
Choking back tears, he says: “What gets to me with them all, and it’s only how I think, I think, ‘Will they ever know how loved they are? Do they understand what love is?
“When I’m with Leo every night in bed I will say to him, ‘Who loves you more than anything in the world?’. He’ll say, ‘you do’. Then I’ll go, ‘Do you love Daddy?’ and he’ll go, ‘yeah’.
“But I think to myself, ‘Is he just saying that, or does he know that?’”
The show sees Paddy and wife Christine admit that four years after the twins’ diagnosis they still struggle to understand the “complicated disability that affects how you see and interact with the world”.
In another heartbreaking moment Christine, 33, breaks down after she receives her own diagnosis of autism.
“It’s just exhausting,” she says, wiping away tears. “I feel like I’m a pain. I don’t mean to be but I feel like a hindrance and I don’t want my children to ever feel like that. Being a parent of kids with autism is challenging and difficult at times but they are not a hindrance. These children are wanted and loved.”
The couple discovered the twins were autistic after Christine’s mum, Joanne, pointed out that aged three, they weren’t speaking or eating solids.
Paddy says: “The early days, before we had a diagnosis, were really tough. They wouldn’t sleep, they had meltdowns at loud noises and bright lights. Nothing we did helped. So we kept the curtains closed and hardly let anyone in the house.”
Paddy says they had few friends with kids the same age to compare with and assumed all new parents faced the same challenges. Christine admits she was initially devastated by the diagnosis but then began looking into the condition, while Paddy struggled to accept it.
She says: “I was so upset about it because I didn’t understand it. Once I understood it, I realised it doesn’t change my children at all. My husband buried his head in work. There are times he just can’t cope with it. There are times when I want to shake him and say, ‘just get on with it. It’s not that big a deal’.
“But then the softer side of me thinks how awful must it be to live in a house with children who maybe you don’t understand or maybe you wished didn’t have this condition.”
Paddy at first refused to talk about it, but spiralled into depression and ended up seeing a therapist. He says: “It chipped away at me, with all of the things you have to do, things you have to deal with as a parent of children with autism. It dawned on me that, that’s it, that’s it for ever. There’s no ‘they’ll get better as the years go on’.
Our kids dropped the lottery with Christine because they couldn’t wish for a better mum.Paddy McGuinness
“In that whole haze of clinical depression, if you’d have given me the chance to take autism away from my children, I would have said ‘yeah’ but autism is part of who they are, so why would I want to take away a part of my children which I love?
“I wasn’t unhappy for me. I was just stressed with the whole thing but I worked my bs off because I thought the only thing I can do for these kids is give them a life where they’re as comfortable as possible. What I should have been thinking is I need to give them as much love as I can. It’s more about having time with them. I realise that now.”
With tears streaming down his face Paddy adds: “Our kids dropped the lottery with Christine because they couldn’t wish for a better mum.”
While all three children have an autism diagnosis, Paddy points out they have very distinct personalities and different challenges. He says: “Leo’s autism is much more obvious than Penelope and Felicity’s.”
Like many autistic children, they struggle with the taste and texture of many foods, and Paddy reveals Leo was once so malnourished doctors considered putting a feeding tube into his stomach.
The eight-year-olds have the understanding of four-year-olds and “that gap seems to get wider with age”, Paddy says. He worries how they will cope at secondary school and whether they will ever live independently.
Although 70 per cent of autistic children attend mainstream schools, many end up leaving or being excluded. Paddy is reassured by a visit to Sedgefield Community College, an inclusive school in County Durham that encourages awareness of the condition, where he meets autistic pupils Jack and Maggie.
He and Christine also visit a supported living community where young adults are helped to live independently. There is also a moving interview with ex-ManU legend Paul Scholes, whose 16-year-old son Aiden has non-verbal autism.
Paul, 47, says: “For the first few years, I thought ‘he’ll start talking eventually’ but then he got to 11 and now 16, and I know he’s never going to be neurotypical, (someone who shows no autistic or atypical behaviour patterns) but he’s great,” he says. “You have to accept it.”
The dad-of-three says Aiden suffered frequent “meltdowns” and he and wife Claire often had scratches on their arms from trying to calm him down. He added: “I’ve had him in a headlock to cut his hair.”
Like Paddy, he admits there were times he thought they couldn’t cope. “He used to come home and go ballistic every day,” he says. “We just used to let him outside into the garden and watch him. He’d be punching, kicking and screaming. I’ve never said this before but I’m looking at him thinking ‘he might have to go into care.’ How can you handle that?’”
But he advises Paddy: “We’ve had some terrible times but he’s a happy boy now. You just have to not care what people think.”
Christine’s diagnosis comes after a meeting with Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, for the show.
In an AQ Questionnaire, which measures autism traits, an average person would score about 15. Paddy scored 17 and Christine a high 36.
Everything I do and everywhere I go, I tend to mirror people.Christine McGuinness
She tells Sir Simon she had always felt “different” and had “faked it” at school, a process known as “masking”, where autistic people mimic behaviour to fit in.
“I feel like I faked a lifetime,” she says. “Everything I do and everywhere I go, I tend to mirror people.”
She says she rearranges hotel rooms when away and “would live in a white box if I could”. She admits she didn’t socialise for eight years in her twenties, adding: “I’ve never really had friends so it hasn’t been an issue.”
And she tells Sir Simon that she had an eating disorder at 14, which she now puts down to autism. "I now understand it wasn’t just about body image,” she says. “The texture, the smell, the taste — everything around food, I just didn’t like it.”
She says she can see a lot of her own traits reflected in her children and is relieved to know the truth. “My focus is always on the children, and if there’s any way my diagnosis of autism can help them, that’s brilliant,” she says.
The brave couple previously said they wanted to make the documentary to help themselves, and others, to understand the complex world of autism - and to make the world more accepting of neurological differences.
This is my gang, my family. I’m proud of us and wouldn’t change it for the world.Paddy McGuinness
But Paddy admits the programme itself helped him come to terms with being a parent to autistic children.
“I’ve got three amazing kids with autism, I’ve got a wife who’s autistic and I feel blessed and equipped with life going forward. This is my gang, my family. I’m proud of us and wouldn’t change it for the world.”
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