As the mum of three autistic children, Christine McGuinness, wife of charismatic television presenter Paddy, has faced more than her fair share of parental challenges.
However, the biggest she has tackled, to date, undoubtedly came early in the pandemic, when her seven-year-old daughter got so down she confided, tearfully, that she no longer wanted to be alive.
Penelope, who has a twin brother, Leo, and younger sister Felicity, four, had convinced herself the reason she couldn’t go to school, nor see her friends and the special educational needs assistant who provides her with one-to-one support, was that she was no longer loved, or wanted.
‘She cried her eyes out every night saying she wanted to go to heaven and never come back because she didn’t like life any more,’ says Christine, her voice catching as she recounts the painful memory.
Christine, 33, who is married to Paddy McGuinness, 47, (pictured) reveals the realities of parenting their three autistic children Penelope, seven, Leo, seven and Felicity, four
‘I held her and asked what the problem was — eventually she told me she didn’t feel loved because she wasn’t allowed to see her friends or (extended) family.
‘We reassured her and explained that it wasn’t personal, that the reason we had to stay away from people was to avoid spreading germs. It was heart-breaking and totally unexpected. I knew she was struggling and feeling down, but I didn’t know how down.
‘Luckily it was quite easily fixed because I was able to help her understand that we were all in the same situation. Now she’s feeling much better. She knows she’s loved and wanted. However, I worry about all my children. They’ve all got areas where they struggle, as well as areas where they’re really great, and Penelope is the one who struggles with anxiety the most.’
Christine, 33, and Paddy, 47, have had to educate themselves extensively on the subject since their twins were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) three years ago and are acutely aware that depression, as well as suicide, are terrifying risk factors.
However, having to confront any parent’s worst fear when their children are still so young was more of a challenge than either of them had bargained for.
‘Conversations about suicide are not what you expect to have with your seven-year-old,’ says Christine.
‘I know anxiety and depression are common in autistic children, especially teenagers, but Penelope’s reaction was definitely triggered by the pandemic.’ The McGuinness children stayed at home during the first lockdown. However, like others with an Education and Health Care (EHC) Plan, they were allowed to keep going to school, and in Felicity’s case, nursery, during the most recent lockdown, after Christmas.
Although this was a relief for the couple — who accepted early on that home education in any traditional sense was out of the question for their children as they struggle with change and require one-to-one support at the small, private school they attend — it was not without its difficulties.
Christine said Penelope felt unloved and unwanted during the early days of the pandemic because she was unable to see her friends and extended family. Pictured from left: Penelope, Felicity and Leo
In early March, Christine, a model and former star of the TV series Real Housewives Of Cheshire, broke down in tears as she spoke of having had a ‘really bad morning’ in a post she shared with her 535,000 Instagram followers.
Endearingly candid, the one-time Miss Liverpool tells me now, in her gentle Liverpudlian lilt, what provoked this emotional outpouring.
‘Penelope felt unloved and unwanted at school so I went in to speak to them to see if her one-to-one assistant was comfortable to give her a cuddle if she was feeling down, and it was just a really difficult conversation to have,’ recalls Christine. ‘I didn’t want to put anyone in an awkward position, or in danger, but it was a toss-up between the risks of Covid and the risk to my child’s mental health.
‘I feel really lucky that I was supported in that and I believe it’s safe as all the teachers do regular Covid tests and, thank God, Penelope is happy again.’
Penelope and Leo —– who were assessed for autism after displaying classic signs, including walking on tip-toes and being late to talk — were diagnosed with autism aged three and a half.
Those with autism, which affects around one in 57 or 1.76 per cent of children in England, often experience anxiety in unfamiliar situations, struggle to understand how other people think and feel, take longer to understand information and can be overwhelmed by bright lights or loud noises.
Christine (pictured) is unaware of anyone on either side of their family with an autism diagnosis, but believes the likelihood is high
As tough as it must have been to come to terms with the fact that both twins had a developmental disorder, there was also some relief for Christine, who had prior to their diagnosis, blamed herself for their struggles.
She had questioned whether it was because, caring for two babies, she had been unable to give either her undivided attention and, wrongly, feared their sensitivity to noise was because, being alone with her most days had turned them into ‘softies’.
Having twins with autism was hard enough, but then her third child Felicity was also diagnosed with autism last February, when she was three, just before the first lockdown.
While the timing can’t have been easy for the couple, not least because access to speech and occupational therapy was halted, it merely confirmed what they both already knew. Felicity too walked on tip-toes and was late to talk and Christine first began to suspect her younger daughter had ASD when she was six months old as her body would stiffen as she changed her nappy, behaviour she remembered observing in her older children.
‘Felicity is very strict on routine, she likes things (her toys) to be lined up and everything organised,’ says Christine. ‘She’s quite similar to Leo in that if things don’t go to plan it will quickly lead to an epic meltdown.’
Christine says not enough is known about the condition to be certain of a genetic link, however, although she’s unaware of anyone on either side of their family with an autism diagnosis, she believes the likelihood is high.
Christine explained that all three children will only eat ‘beige food’ such as chicken nuggets, chips and bread, because of their sensory issues. Pictured: Paddy and Christine
‘We (she and Paddy) haven’t been assessed or tested, so we wouldn’t know if it’s in our genes,’ she says. ‘But that would be the most obvious conclusion.
Paddy, who presented the ITV dating show Take Me Out for nine years, underwent a vasectomy two years ago, despite Christine always having dreamed of a big family and pinning her hopes on having a fourth child.
‘It wasn’t because we were worried about having another child with autism, that’s all we know,’ she says. ‘It was simply that we need to give the children we have as much love and attention as possible and we’re already stretched, so it wouldn’t have been fair on any of them.’
And the day-to-day demands — many of which fall to Christine as Paddy is often working, filming shows including Top Gear and a new BBC1 series I Can See Your Voice — would be enough to test any couple.
Felicity, as is typical for autistic children, suffers insomnia and rarely falls asleep before 2am, while the twins are up at 5.30am most mornings.
While all three can now talk, rather than making conversation, they often simply repeat the same things they have, for instance, heard on television.
Due to their sensory issues, which can lead to a total aversion to certain tastes and textures, all three will only eat ‘beige food’ — chicken nuggets, fish fingers, chips and bread — while Leo is especially fussy, getting by on little more than chips, something a nutritionist is helping him to build on.
The McGuinnesses (pictured) are working on a BBC1 documentary about raising autistic children called Autism And Our Family
This time last year, their children’s food phobias made fears about shortages of certain products particularly scary for the McGuinnesses who knew that, if they couldn’t get their usual brands, the trio would simply refuse to eat anything.
‘One likes white bread, another likes brown and the third likes the loaves that are a mix of both,’ says Christine.
‘One likes the crust on, another wants it cut into squares and the other into triangles. I go with it because I like to choose my battles and would rather sit down and eat with happy children than try to force them to eat a slice of toast that was not how they wanted it.
‘As long as they’re happy, I’m happy too.’ One benefit of lockdown for the McGuinnesses, who are working on a BBC1 documentary about raising autistic children called Autism And Our Family, has been the introduction of proper family meal times.
The children used to have tea in their playroom but they have now got into the habit of all sitting around the table together to eat, giving Christine and Paddy an opportunity to help improve their children’s conversational skills.
Spurred on by her own experience, Christine is supporting the Family Fund, the UK’s largest charity supporting families raising disabled and seriously ill children, via food company McCain, which has already pledged a donation of £1 million.
One of the biggest struggles for many is financial, with almost a third of parents of sick or disabled children having turned to food banks over the past year, compared with just five per cent of families in general.
Christine (pictured) who is raising awareness of autism, revealed her children’s biggest struggles are social and in managing their emotions
While unlikely to ever need to rely on food banks, Christine is without a huge support network in the real world, though she is appreciative of the online community she has built, many of them also parents of autistic children, via her Instagram page.
Christine also finds it hard when people point and stare at her trio when they display typically autistic behaviour, such as flapping or jumping. Even before the pandemic, the family spent much of their time at home, as the outside world — with its crowds, loud noises and bright lights — can be a daunting place for children with sensory issues.
She was left ‘heartbroken’ a couple of years ago, in a soft play centre, when she overheard someone complaining about the noises they were making and saying ‘there must be something wrong with those children’.
‘By the time my children are teenagers, I would like everyone to understand that’s just perfectly normal behaviour for autistic children and adults, and not to stare,’ says Christine, a celebrity ambassador for national disability charity Caudwell Children, which helps families access autism services.
‘It would be good if people could just think: “Oh, that’s autistic behaviour, that’s actually very normal for them”.
‘Raising awareness is the reason I talk about autism so much.’ While the children struggle with tasks others their age manage easily, such as dressing and feeding themselves, and have meltdowns akin to toddler tantrums when things don’t go to plan, they are all succeeding academically.
‘Their biggest struggles are social and in managing their emotions,’ says Christine. ‘For instance, understanding that they can’t always win every game and if the battery runs out on the computer we just need to get the charger.’
Christine who first met her husband in 2007, said ‘both putting in 50/50’ has led to great marital harmony. Pictured: Christine and Paddy
Despite the challenges, the McGuinnesses juggled the care of their children, pre-pandemic, with support from Christine’s mum, who lives nearby, without a nanny or an au pair.
And Christine, who first met her husband in 2007 at the Liverpool Tennis Tournament, ensures her modelling and promotional work is done in school hours when she also fits in trips to the gym, a pastime she ‘adores’, and which also enables her to maintain an enviable, and very unmumsy, figure.
Although Paddy is currently filming Top Gear and was previously recording episodes of I Can See Your Voice, the first of which aired on BBC1 on Saturday, he was at home for much of last year.
Christine said at the time, ‘both putting in 50/50’ had led to great marital harmony as there was ‘absolutely nothing for us to argue about’.
While parents of some children may harbour ambitions for them to become doctors or lawyers, the McGuinnesses have different hopes for their trio.
‘I just want the normal things for them,’ says Christine. ‘That they get jobs one day, can drive a car and have relationships.’
While most parents would concur that their children’s happiness is what matters most, the McGuinnesses have more reason than most to prioritise this goal.
‘It’s something I’m always going to worry about,’ says Christine.
‘But, luckily, she has got the support she needs, now she’s back at school. I’ve got my happy little girl back.’
McCain believes every family should be able to enjoy mealtimes together, taking time for the little moments that matter. Christine McGuinness is supporting McCain and Family Fund as part of the McCain Nation’s Conversations Mealtimes For All Report which explores the barriers to these moments for families raising disabled or seriously ill children. For more information on the partnership and ways to donate, please visit www.mccainfamilyfund.co.uk.
For support call Childline on 0800 1111.