Despite autism, sky's the limit for Reilly's son as he embarks on PhD

Jamie Reilly speaking in UCG. He is the son of Health Minister James Reilly

Caroline Crawford

THE autistic son of Health Minister James Reilly has spoken of his struggles to overcome his disability throughout his education.

Jamie Reilly (26), who could not speak until the age of three and was assessed as having an IQ in the mentally handicapped range, has just completed his Masters in biotechnology in Queen's University in Belfast.

He will begin a PhD in genetics at NUI Galway in September.

Speaking during an international conference on autism at the Galway university, the young academic urged people not to set limits for their children.

Jamie, from Rush in north Dublin, was diagnosed with autism at three.

At that stage he didn't speak and showed signs of repetitive behaviour.

However, he revealed it was difficult to get a diagnosis because "there was a reluctance to give it a label".

He told of his difficulties in overcoming certain aspects of his condition, including an obsession with water from the age of 18 months which led to him flooding the family home on occasions.

As a child Jamie had a "very rigid" disposition, which left him wanting structure around meals and clothes.

"My eye contact was nearly non-existent and I had very little interest in people around me," he explained.

His mother Dorothy also told the conference about Jamie's struggle, revealing his tendency to hand clap, constantly spit, repeat lists and bang his head against walls and doors.

Jamie also told how he had a great capacity to absorb and memorise information from books.

"I could devour a book and would be able to recall most of the knowledge from it," he said.

After attending a special school in his early childhood, Jamie started mainstream education at 11.

He went on to achieve 525 points in his Leaving Cert before studying science and genetics in Trinity and biotechnology at Queen's. He praised the support of his headmaster and family in assisting him to make the most of his education.

He also praised his occupational therapist at Trinity who showed him how to set weekly goals, manage time spent on activities and provide exercises to relieve stress and calm down.

In order to focus his need for structure, Jamie went to as many lectures as possible.

"My compulsion to go to as many lectures as I could for fear of being distracted was a good source of consistency for me," he explained.

During his time studying in Belfast, Jamie was away from family and friends.

"I had to organise my own affairs, food, travel, paying for accommodation, bills and the like and make sure I could keep up with the great workload I was expected to answer for.

"Basically, I had to utilise all I had learned from my previous years just to get through the course," he said.


He also pointed out that parents should not expect their children to be 'cured' of autism.

"Parents with children on the spectrum put much time and effort into helping them in the hopes that someday they will emerge from their condition," he said, adding that it was unfair to children and leaves parents feeling burnout and despair.

Instead he urged them to encourage and maximise their child's interests when it came to their education.

"Most important of all, never set a limit for your child because you never know they could surprise you," he added.