For many parents, living with autism can be both daunting and challenging.  It can be so frustrating for parents when others are unaware that a child may have some form of autism.  Dungiven dad-of-three Danny O’Kane has spoken about his experiences of dealing with the condition in an effort to raise more awareness.

“Last year I would have described my son as the most affectionate, bad tempered, funny wee man I know,” doting dad Danny O’Kane replies when asked to describe his eight year-old son Ryan.

However over the last 12 months, Ryan has come a long way.

“The things kids naturally learn, he doesn’t,” continued Danny who is well-known thanks to his business Ballykelly uPVC. 

“He needs taught almost every detail of every social scenario.  At the age of five, while attending Sisterkeel Primary School in Glack, it was noticed his behaviour was inconsistent from one day to the next.  Being told ‘that sometimes he comes across as immature,’ just trying to understand that statement was very hard as he was only five but the teachers were going to recommend he should be assessed for some form of autism by the A.S.D (Autism Spectrum Disorder) team – the usual requirement to get proper help.”

As a joiner, who fixes things on a daily basis, Danny says after being told this, he wondered how he could fix what he didn’t understand?”

“We also moved house at this stage and to help settle into our new home we felt we had to paint his new bedroom the same colour.  Bedroom furniture was also set out in relation to the window.  We hoped it would all help in the process of change.  This is what he struggled with, whether it was changing the family car or tables and chairs,” said Danny.

“Like so many, both parents work, and if we were running late and panicking to get out, his brain couldn’t accept that we were leaving him, so there would be countless hugs and tears and ‘I love my family’ said.

“It would be usual if I was off to work a bit early and he would still be in bed, our son would hear the van start, panic and run down stairs even to the road in front of the van, all because he didn’t get to say goodbye.”

It is only now at the age of eight, and now living in Dungiven, that this type of behaviour has ceased.

“Having been assessed by the A.S.D team based in Maydown, it has been confirmed that he has now got what they say is autistic traits and will gradually learn coping mechanisms.  But for so many when it’s confirmed that your son and daughter is autistic by the A.S.D. team, it is soul destroying.  It’s then that the hard and relentless work begins,” said Danny.

“Four years it has taken my wife and I to learn how to deal with Ryan’s aggressive behaviour, which we know was him releasing frustration that he had built up.

“You do feel that you are on your own at times and what works one day might not work the next.  What I didn’t know was that my cousin Julie Ann (Mullan) Harkin, formerly from Magilligan, was struggling in the same way with her family.  She is now co-founder of Circle of Support based in Derry.”

Danny says that Ryan’s behaviour has improved over the last few years with some help.

“Mrs Gribben, Ryan’s first teacher when we again moved houses to Dungiven two and a half years ago, started to swing the pendulum back to a more positive manner, along with the help of Mrs Jefferies.  They started a program called Play Buddy, where he got a different friend every day so he could improve his social skills, simply learning to play with different children.

“Recent behaviour has improved with the help of current teacher, Mr McLaughlin, special educational needs coordinator for the primary school.  Ryan has always been so easily distracted and there has often been a lack of focus with him, but there is an improvement there now.

“Paula Fyfe, the Limavady Chiropractor, assessed that he was producing too much adrenaline and so was firing off too quickly.  With regular adjustments she was able to calm him down.  Even Ciara, the local barber in the town, has described him now as a ‘different wain’.

“Ryan has since joined the local kickboxing club in Dungiven, which is something he really enjoys.  From a terrible first night, he has now channelled his energies into the sport and he loves it.  It’s not complicated, he gets it.  It’s also structured at this stage unlike football where you would be throwing a dummy.”

Danny says he fears that his son’s previous behaviour, or lack of it, would have left him isolated from having friends.

However his proudest moment to date came when Ryan approached one of his friend’s mums and asked her could his friend come to his birthday party.

“We tried to explain to him why some mothers may be reluctant to allow their sons to go to his birthday.  He, on his own, approached one mother and asked could his friend come.  He only wanted to play with his friend,” said Danny.

Revealing his hopes for the future, he continued: “There should be visible posters about autism in every GAA club, health centre and public building.  I believe if schools are working with more kids who have autism, the volunteers, who help at clubs, need to be aware of possible autism.  What may appear to be odd behaviour, may only be a child who hasn’t grasped what they are being taught.  These kids are too young to be given up on.

“I also hope that more people would come forward to tell their story, so we all could know a little bit more about autism.

“And finally about autism, DON’T TRY TO FIX US, TRY TO UNDERSTAND US.”

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