17 December 2017


Whatever the subject, it’s amazing the amount of data that can be found on the internet. Never before has information been so readily or instantly available. But, as Albert Einstein once pointed out, information isn’t the same as knowledge. The recent channel four television programme ‘Derek’, written by Mr. Ricky Gervais, illustrates this point perfectly. It is obvious that the pilot’s creator knows little about the real challenges facing people with special needs. If he did, surely he would understand that mental health issues are no laughing matter. His depiction of ‘Derek,’ a middle-aged man whose shuffling gait and jutting jaw, is a caricature that, for generations has caused untold misery to thousands of vulnerable individuals and their families. Sadly, such behaviour continues to be witnessed in school-yards across the world. But what we do not expect is the same brand of insensitivity from, what are supposed to be, mature and compassionate adults in the responsible field of broadcasting. It is time for the Christian community to voice its concern and send Mr Gervais as well as the broadcasting media, a message. Mental illness is simply not funny!

Mum of two, Diane Corrigan is just one among thousands of women whose understanding of ‘special needs’ is based on more than computer research. With a daughter suffering the distressing condition, Asperger’s Sydrome, a form of Autism, her intelligence is garnered from the painful and personal reality of daily life. She explains some of the facts.

“Autism is a disorder that affects brain development and, depending on whether at the higher or lower end of the spectrum, can have a major impact on the lives of individuals. For some, especially at the lower end, it can mean serious disability. It’s incredible to think that over half a million people in the UK suffer some form of the debilitating condition.”

Over the years Diane has invested a lot of time researching the issues associated with Autism. Yet, as her story unfolds, it’s obvious that she has more than an intellectual acquaintance with the subject. As the mother of an Autistic child, her knowledge is garnered from the personal reality of daily life.

“When our youngest daughter Shelley began refusing to speak to her classmates, teachers thought she was simply shy. But I wasn’t so sure. At the time we were living in Scotland and I was working in an educational arena where many of the children had special needs, including Autism. I noticed that Shelley displayed some of the more overt signs, especially those involving communication skills and suspected she was somewhere on the Spectrum. I knew that, the sooner she was assessed the better and decided to set things in motion.”

Any hope that her working experience might provide some useful contacts or positive direction, was rapidly squashed.

“I tried asking other mothers, speaking with colleagues and generally trying to find someone to guide me. It always ended in frustration and failure. My husband and I finally decided to return to our home in Northern Ireland where we hoped things would be easier.”

Once back in the Province, Diane set about finding help for her daughter.

“Despite a high level of intelligence, Shelley was finding school increasingly difficult. Unable to interact with the other kids, she found the class room setting intimidating. Unfortunately, kids often target those who seem different and, before long Shelley was marginalised and bullied. She dreaded going to school. The more time passed, the more urgent the situation became. I knew that, without an official diagnosis, we couldn’t access the educational or psychological services that would help Shelley progress through the school system and realise her full potential.”

When Shelley’s primary school teacher wrote to their family GP, requesting a referral to a children’s Medical Officer, it was the beginning of a four-year struggle with bureaucracy but, in the end Diane had the answer to her prayers. Shelley was diagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism.

“I’d been praying for so long and it was such a relief to finally have the official recognition that would help lay the foundation for a framework of support.”

Diane may have won the bureaucratic battle but the challenges presented by Autism were a daily struggle.

“It’s difficult to explain the impact Autism has, not only on the individual, but the family as a whole. There is no definite set of symptoms; it is not a one size fits all condition. Everyone on the Autism Spectrum is unique although, there are some things, like verbal and non-verbal communication that are common to all. Shelley’s view of the world is different to most. She doesn’t have the interaction tools we all take for granted. Imagine how hard it would be to follow, never mind participate in a conversation when you can’t read the subtle undertones, nuances, facial expressions or body language. For Shelley, it isn’t always easy to know when something is meant literally or as a mere figure of speech. It’s particularly difficult when she doesn’t know if words are spoken in jest or sarcasm. Inanimate objects, like buildings can be another source of stress as she doesn’t like new places. Travelling alone on an unfamiliar route could easily shake her confidence. So many things proved disorientating.”

The hormonal upheaval of adolescence can be traumatic for any teenager but for those with an Autistic disorder, it can be traumatic. “At one point, during Shelley’s teens, we went through a particularly difficult trial. Frustrated and depressed, Shelley turned her pain inward and, to our horror, began cutting herself. That was such a terrible time. But, despite the heartache, I clung to my faith and believed that, regardless of how bad things appeared, God was in control and would bring us through.”

As a Christian, Diane’s faith has given her the strength to cope with her role as parent of an Autistic child.

“Over the years, our family has worked hard to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of Autism. Shelley and I have developed a mutual understanding and respect and I’ve encouraged her to grow in confidence. Even a simple thing like taking a bus journey alone, was a triumph and a cause for thanksgiving. As her mum, it’s great to see her progress and succeed. I know that the ultimate goal is for her to lead an independent, happy life. Yet, sometimes, I worry for her. The world can be a scary, lonely place at the best of times.

Although, I suspect that my apprehension isn’t solely about Autism. Maybe like any mum, I just dread her leaving the nest! In the end, I have to let go and trust her to God.”

Today, almost two decades since she was labeled an ‘elective mute’ and placed on the Autism Spectrum, Shelley Corrigan has come a long way. Social interaction continues to present difficulties but despite the problems, she has made enormous progress. Currently studying Biomedical Engineering at university, she is working toward a career in forensics. Few would argue that Shelley Corrigan is an inspiration to other sufferers of Autism. Equally she is a credit to her mum’s tenaciousness and support. More importantly, she’s a testament to God’s unfailing care and love.