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When celebrity couple Keith and Lisa Duffy's daughter Mia was diagnosed with autism it had a huge impact on their lives, writes Jacqueline Kavanagh

At first glance, Keith and Lisa Duffy look like any other good-looking, well-off, celebrity couple whom the public have taken to heart and feel they know. These days, we're used to good-looking, well-off celebrities talking about "challenges", personal tragedies and charity work -- in fact, we demand it of them. But it's seldom we come across a couple as unaffected, honest and frank as Keith and Lisa.

Talking to Keith Duffy, it's obvious that there's more to him than mere celebrity rhetoric. And when the down-to-earth father-of-two talks about his family life and his utter frustration with the treatment of children with autism in this country, which he describes as a "fucking disgrace", it's then you get an indication that first impressions don't do them justice.

Thanks to the debate surrounding the smartness of the Boyzone comeback tour, starting in May, and his stint as a judge/mediator on RTE's You're a Star, Keith Duffy's name has remained in the public domain. However, while the work mightn't be as glamourous, or catch the headlines as often, he's been equally busy with Irish Autism Action (IAA) of late, a charity close to his heart.

He started fundraising after his daughter Mia was diagnosed with autism at 18 months -- a disability that affects the normal development of the brain in areas of social interaction and communication. And though he's raised an estimated €4m to date, he's adamant that it's the parents of autistic children who fundraised alongside him who deserve the credit.

There's no doubt in his mind that every cent put towards providing early diagnosis and appropriate education for children with autism is not only worth it, but vital. He speaks from personal experience after his family benefited from what he describes as "a miracle" last September when Mia walked through the gates of Rolestown National School, a mainstream school in Swords.

He believes her progress was made possible because she got the chance to attend ABACAS in Kilbarrack, North Dublin, a school that uses the Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) method.

This is a personalised programme that involves breaking down tasks into small achievable steps, each achievement building on the previous.

The Dubliner, who is still sporting a cast on his arm following an accident in the gym, is surprisingly unguarded or shy about talking about his love for his stunning wife of 10 years, Lisa, and his two children, Jay (12) and Mia (8).

He smiles as he recalls the day his daughter was born. "When Mia came along, we had a gentleman's family, a little boy and a girl. I thought all we're short now is the gentleman," Keith laughs.

But by the time Mia was a year old, they began to suspect something was wrong.

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"As she got a little older, we thought she might be deaf," he explains. "We couldn't get through to her, we thought she was ignoring us. She developped quirky ways, she wouldn't go outside the house and, if she was outside, her blanket would be over her head all the time. As open as Lisa and I are, we weren't talking and I didn't want to bring it up because I didn't want to face what was wrong."

He admits that the day he realised Mia had autism was devastating. "I hadn't cried like that in years, I was like a child; I couldn't catch my breath.

"The tears were streaming down my face," he says. "When I got home, I said to Lisa 'Mia is autistic' and she gave me a slap across the jaw. That was her way of having to accept something was wrong. It was a horrible time."

Lisa still finds it difficult to talk about that period of their lives without it bringing tears to her eyes.

"When Mia was diagnosed, Keith threw himself into fundraising as a way of dealing with it. I went the other way, I retreated and hid away for a while," she explains. "I found the fundraising difficult because, initially, I didn't want to accept it was real."

They very rapidly discovered just how difficult it was to get help. Waiting lists for diagnostic reports were anything up to two years. (The IAA, after years of fundraising have since opened their own centre, The Solas Centre, to help families get help and their children assessed.)

Mia started in ABACAS at the age of two and a half.

"When she went there first, she couldn't speak, had no communication skills, had no affection," Keith reveals. "She was very much in her own world. She'd hide underneath her bed, wouldn't open the hall door. There was no Daddy- or Mammy-daughter relationship. To us, she was lonely."

And, of course, her older brother Jay also struggled to understand his little sister.

"He used to get quite frustrated at times and would ask why his sister didn't like him or why she wouldn't speak to him and stuff like that," says Keith. "It was difficult trying to explain that she's autistic."

But, he says, the one-to-one teaching produced startling results and, at five, she spoke her first words.

"She loved watching musicals, like Lady and the Tramp and Annie and, one Sunday afternoon, we were sitting watching the telly and Mia came into the room and sang Tomorrow from Annie. That was the first thing to come out of her mouth," explains the proud father.

Lisa says that was a magical day.

"We were crying with joy," says Lisa, who reveals that up to that time their house was dotted with Post-It notes with pictures that Mia used to illustrate what she wanted.

It's obvious home life is central to Keith and that could well be as a result of his own happy childhood. He was brought up with his two brothers in Donaghmede. Christened Keith Peter Thomas Francis John Duffy, Keith says he was just a typical boy with "muck up to the eyeballs".

It was on the party scene in Dublin that Keith bumped into Louis Walsh and 'the boys', better known as Boyzone. It was also during this time he met Lisa, who gave him "the runaround for months". Career success followed, as did the tours and hectic schedules, which he says, put pressure on their relationship.

"We've had our ups and downs over the years," he says. "But we've always managed to get through the bullshit and realise why we're together in the first place. We're not this fantasy, happy couple; we do have a very ordinary life."

Lisa, too, admits that Keith's being away on tour for long periods was difficult.

"Keith would be coming home on a high after playing to maybe 18,000 people," she says. "And I'd be at home with the baby and maybe ask him to do something like stack the dishwasher and he'd look at me as if to say 'I'm back to this'. I'd to explain that this was real life."

Today, when not passing verdict on the 'stars' on RTE's talent show, Keith Duffy is launching charity events to raise money for the IAA. At the moment there are 12 schools providing ABA in Ireland teaching 300 children and there are at least another 300 youngsters on the schools' waiting lists.

Keith admits he finds it hard to comprehend why the state continues in the public, painful, drawn-out and expensive battles over autistic children and their rights to receive what is deemed "appropriate education".

"My daughter is in a mainstream setting and it's more than we ever hoped or dreamed of. But there are parents who are listening to my story who know this form of education is out there and they can't avail of it because there are waiting lists the length of both my arms for every one of these schools," he argues, clearly agitated.

He says that he doesn't want to get angry, but he's frustrated with a Board of Education that he claims isn't listening to the people who are best in the situation to advise them, the parents of children with autism.

Lisa admits that Keith has a more positive attitude to the situation than she does.

"I would be angry," she says. "I'd be angry that a child is losing out on an opportunity to fulfil their potential."

But sadly, Keith also thinks that until those making decisions are directly affected, the situation might not change.

"It's going to take one of the Board of Education members or one of the High Court judges to have a child or a grandchild with autism before they realise that this system of ABA can help a child with autism.

"It's the difference between being institutionalised and holding down a job in the bank," he points out.

The next few months are going to be extremely busy for the family. Boyzone are touring, something he admits he's excited about -- he's lost two stone since November getting in shape for his fans.

But more importantly, Mia, whom Lisa describes as the "happiest child in the world" will be making her First Communion in May. It's an achievement her parents attribute to getting the appropriate education at the right time, something they want for all autistic children.

BTkids joins forces with Keith to present Time to Shine, a family day at The Four Season's, Mother's Day, Sunday, March 2, dedicated to raising much-needed funds for Irish Autism Action.

Tickets for Time to Shine cost €1,500 for a table of 10. Available from Kevin Whelan at Irish Autism Action, 044 9331609 or email kevin@autismireland.ie; also available from Tara O'Connor on 086 236 6936.

For BTkids Grafton Street, call Alison Lawless on 01-605 6666 ext 6525 or email info@bt2.ie

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