‘Tough love and compromises help make Christmas joyful with my autistic son’

Christine McGuinness shared an Instagram post highlighting the poignancy of her family home’s Christmas decorations.

“My babies forever,” she wrote alongside a photo of her children with the impressive tree. “I still remember the years we didn’t have a Christmas tree at home because it would overwhelm them. Look at them now. my inspirations.”

Concluding the post she added: “Anything is possible with love, support and patience (lots of patience).”

Christine, 34, has twins Penelope and Leo, nine, and Felicity, six, with husband Paddy. The three children have autism, so the doting parents have adapted the celebrations to suit their needs and to not cause sensory overload.

Christine is proud of her three children
(Image: Instagram/Christine McGuinness)

Mona Shah, 52, from Cambridgeshire, has son Ash, 24, with husband Shaz. The family moved to the UK from Pakistan in 2006 in order to get a specialised education for Ash, who is now flourishing at the family’s business – Harry Specters Chocolate Bars.

It wasn’t long after the relocation that Ash took an interest in Christmas, and asked his parents if they could have a tree in their home.

“Ash saw Christmas trees at school, and so wanted one at home. I was up for it! He was so excited, and would sit near it so he could touch the pine needles and look at the lights up close. In January, we told him that it was time to take it down and he had a big meltdown. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

Ash loves Christmas trees

“We took it away when he was sleeping, and told him that Santa took it to another country. Ash asked for the tree to come back in October, and then insisted it didn’t get put away.

“He wouldn’t accept my story that it got taken somewhere else anymore. He would refuse to sleep in case someone took it in the night, and if we did manage to sneak it away he’d demand, ‘Give me my tree back’.

“We eventually had to be firm and say, ‘This is how it works’ and got him a tall green plant as a replacement. Of course, he still looks forward to the real thing!

“Having a child with autism I’ve learnt it’s important to explain why things are the way they are, and try to come to a compromise.”

Mona is proud of son Ash

Often people with autism take comfort in routine, and don’t like too much change. Christmas can be overwhelming for that reason.

Mona has tried to prepare Ash for these kinds of situations throughout his life, by not making things too easy.

“It’s tough love, but I know it benefits him in the long run so I have to do it. For example, when he was younger and I took him to therapy he always wanted me to drive the exact same route.

“When I went a different way he was kicking the back of my chair, pulling my hair and screaming.

“I kept going with it until he could relax into it more. I don’t want anything that changes to become a problem for him. He had to adjust because life isn’t perfect. He would have had a tougher time when he faced the real world. Now, he can take on things like changes at Christmas.

“Ash is amazing. He lives in assisted housing and he’s always having little triumphs. Ash makes me proud all the time, like when he doesn’t decide what he’s having for dinner until a few hours beforehand.”

Mona and Shaz started Harry Specters Chocolate Bars for their son
(Image: Aldi)

After learning that “85% of autistic people are unemployed and 61% of them are desperate to work,” Mona and Shaz took matters into their own hands.

The couple set up a chocolate business that employs people with autism. The confectionary business recently won Channel 4’s ‘Aldi’s Next Big Thing’, which means their product is now stocked in the popular supermarket.

“When me and my husband were discussing Ash’s prospects after eduction we knew that we needed to do something. I love chocolate, so that felt like a non-brainer, but to be honest we would have done a business in anything that could help our son.

“It all began 10 years ago in a little workshop at the back of our house, with Ash on board right from the start. He tells girls, ‘It’s my business, my parents just help out.’

“Working with chocolate is quite sensory and very structured so it’s enjoyable for autistic people. He started inviting his friends from school to come assist too, who loved it. It’s grown from there and we now have ten people full time, and about six work experience students.

“For me, it’s not about retaining staff if I feel like they’ve outgrown us. I like to see them go on and achieve even more. I’ve had parents thank me for giving their children confidence and seen staff members go on to work at so many different places including Amazon and Sainsbury’s. They work alongside neurotypical colleagues brilliantly now.”

Ash is flourishing at work and at home

“One thing I did initially struggle with was the company name, and Ash just randomly said one day, ‘It’s called Harry Spectators’. When people ask where the name came from he just says, ‘My brain’,” Mona tells us.

“There’s never a boring day at our factory. Our team, which feels like a family, is always surprising me with the little things they come out with. They handle stress so well. Many of the team will just be dancing and singing away while packing up the biggest order of the year.

“We’ve got a man called Bruce who likes to sing Elton John’s I’m Still Standing. I feel very lucky I get to work with these incredible people, and get to help them find their place in the world.”


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