Despite struggles with Mia’s condition early on, Keith couldn’t be more proud of his daughter
The holiday was a memorable one but not in the way he expected.
“Every time we saw a Disney character she would start to tense up, straightening out one of her arms and then the other one and they would shake,” says the 43-year-old Irish singer who is married to Lisa and also has a son Jay, now 21.
“At the time we thought it was because she was excited. That was the first time she had started to do what we now know is called ‘tensing’.”
Keith, best known for being a member of chart-topping Irish boy band Boyzone, says that although Mia’s speech wasn’t developing normally – she was making no sounds at all – it hadn’t crossed his mind at that point that she could be autistic.
Keith didn’t know his daughter had autism, thinking some of the signs were excitement
The more questions I asked him, the more it became apparent that Mia had autism
“Jay had been late to speak as well and had to have grommets put in his ears,” explains the former Coronation Street actor.
“We thought it was just a case of the same thing.”
The couple took Mia for hearing tests, which revealed no problems.
But by then Mia had withdrawn into her own world, she would start lining things up on the floor in a straight line.
She wouldn’t make eye contact and didn’t like anyone coming into the house.
Keith noticed that Mia had withdrawn into her own world, and was lining things up in a straight line
It was only when Keith attended an autism charity event with a friend that he finally realised Mia might have an autism spectrum disorder.
Keith says: “He was telling me about this school for children with autism and I asked him what autism was. With everything he said to me, the penny started to drop a bit further. The more questions I asked him, the more it became apparent that Mia had autism.”
Keith immediately drove back home to tell his wife.
“I got into my car to go home and I burst into tears. I was more upset because I knew that my wife would be devastated.
“I got home and Lisa could see I was crying and she was worried and I just blurted out: ‘Mia has autism.’ That moment made everything real. In the shock and upset of it all she gave me a slap across the face and then she crumbled.”
Keith attended a charity event with a friend, where he learned that Mia may have autism
But the couple discovered that an official diagnosis could take up to two-and-a-half years and they had been told by their friend that early intervention was essential.
So they sought the help of a private specialist who confirmed that Mia, then 18 months old, was autistic.
It is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and how they experience the world around them.
It affects about 700,000 people in the UK.
Autism is a spectrum condition which means that all autistic people share certain difficulties but being autistic will affect them in different ways.
Mia has undergone Applied Behaviour analysis and has made ‘leaps and bounds’ in development
Common traits can include highly focused interests, repetitive behaviour, adherence to strict routines or particular gestures such as hand flapping or tensing different body parts.
Frustrated at the lack of help for autistic children in Ireland, Keith became involved with the charity Irish Autism Action, eventually becoming patron, raising millions for education funding.
He also successfully campaigned for the average length of time taken to be diagnosed from two-and-a-half years to three months.
Along the way, he has won a multitude of awards for his work, including a People Of Ireland award in 2008, the National Philanthropist of the Year in 2014 and an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery in 2014 – an accolade previously given to Mother Teresa.
“I was in very good company,” he jokes.
Keith is now raising awareness about the importance of identifying the early signs of autism
After discovering there was only one appropriate school for Mia in Ireland – with only 12 places, all of them full, and a waiting list – Keith and other parents set about raising money to employ more teachers and allow more children, including Mia, to be taught there.
The school in Kilbarrack, Dublin, which Mia attended from the age of three, uses a teaching method called Applied Behaviour Analysis.
Mia was speaking by the age of seven and entered a mainstream school at the age of nine and she has since come on in leaps and bounds.
“She has done remarkably well, now she’s in her final year of school and doing her leaving certificate (the Irish equivalent of A-levels).”
Keith says his daughter still struggles with anxiety, particularly in stressful situations such as exams.
“Although she is highly intelligent, she doesn’t always perform well,” he explains.
“She has the ability to do so much better but just not in stressful situations and that’s something else that she is working hard to conquer.”
Now 17, Mia has been accepted to study third-level education at Trinity College Dublin and Keith is delighted with her progress.
“I never thought she would be in mainstream school, I never thought she’d sit state exams. I never thought any of this would happen but she’s done it and I couldn’t be happier for her.” He is keen to point out how important early intervention is for any child with autism.
“You can’t get access to any of the services you will need until you have an official diagnosis.
“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and don’t give up on your child,” he says.
“Mia is one of the most amazing human beings and one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. She is very aware now that she has autism.
“She has embraced it and knows it’s a disability and talks about it a bit but it’s still very much a private thing for her. With our support she can try to live the best life she can and that’s all any parent wants for their children.”