Monday 19 February 2018

'My Harry's autism came out of the blue' - Model Ali McDonnell

Model Ali McDonell (Centre) and her son Harry Dempsey launch Irish Autism Action's Blue Nose Day
Model Ali McDonell (Centre) and her son Harry Dempsey launch Irish Autism Action's Blue Nose Day
Model Ali McDonell (Centre) and her son Harry Dempsey launch Irish Autism Action's Blue Nose Day which takes place on Monday 27th April, 2017.

Sean O'Grady

Model Ali McDonnell is calling for a greater understanding of people with autism.

Her plea comes after her son Harry was diagnosed with the condition last June.

Ali (35) said she "never felt so alone" as when doctors told her he had autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"I had just had a baby four days before that. There was a lot going on and when I got Harry's diagnosis... I cried for days.

Ali McDonnell and with her daughter Sienna (eight months).
Ali McDonnell and with her daughter Sienna (eight months).

"People said, 'Oh maybe it's the baby blues', and it's not. My son had just been diagnosed with autism and ADHD and I didn't know what to do."

Ali, who is an ambassador for charity Irish Autism Action, is also mum to son Alex (15) and daughters Sara (13) and nine-month-old Sienna, all of whom "adore" their brother.

"It's very hard on them. He would cause murder in the house and have fights with them but they're doing their best. They adore him," she told the Herald.

The Rathfarnham woman did not know anything about ASD when her son was given his diagnosis. She felt she was not given enough information on what her next step should be to help him.

Model Ali McDonell (Centre) and her son Harry Dempsey launch Irish Autism Action's Blue Nose Day which takes place on Monday 27th April, 2017.
Model Ali McDonell (Centre) and her son Harry Dempsey launch Irish Autism Action's Blue Nose Day which takes place on Monday 27th April, 2017.

"I'm still trying to figure this out. I think every parent in this country with a child on the spectrum is still very confused about it," she said.

"You're given a diagnosis and you're told, 'There you go'. But no, what's the next step?" she added.

"I hadn't got a clue about autism. I'm learning more about it every day as I meet more kids and adults on the spectrum.

"However, any of the psychologists I spoke to, they're not giving me the answers I need."

Ali took Harry to a doctor when he began to have "meltdowns", something she had not seen in his older siblings.

"He was always verbal and spoke early. He was hyper all the time, there were highs and lows," she said.

"Harry had no fear of anybody and he would have these meltdowns. After being a mom of two other kids, I knew that wasn't right.

"He's hilarious. He has an amazing personality. He also has dyslexia and he finds learning very difficult."

Ali says his school is doing the best it can for him, but feels it could be provided with more support.

"Harry goes to a resource teacher for half-an-hour a day but, because of his ADHD, she finds it very hard. Out of a half-an-hour session, she might get five minutes' work done with him."

Ali spoke about the difficulties Harry faces on a daily basis.

"When a child on the spectrum walks into a room, they will notice the telly is on, the light flickering in the corner, what conversations are going on, they're taking everything in and it can be overwhelming for them," she said.

"When Harry's sitting down to learn in school with ADHD, it's next to impossible for him."

Ali is considering the idea of putting her son on ritalin, a central nervous system stimulant that is used to treat ADHD, however she worries it could "dull" him.

"I'm toying with the idea of medication. It breaks my heart because I hear such mixed reviews about it," she said.

"Do I medicate my son to help him learn? People say you'll dull your child and I don't want to dull him, but at the same time I want him to have a future.

"My hope for Harry is that there will be more understanding of him. The more awareness we raise for children on the spectrum, the better the outcome for them as adults," she said.

As part of its programme for Autism Awareness Month, Irish Autism Action will hold it's annual Blue Nose Day on April 27, when organisations, clubs and schools around the country will wear blue noses.

Noses are available for a donation of €2 each from the charity. Email info@autismireland.ie for details

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