When the documentary, Life, Animated, was released last year, its moments of joy, heartbreak and revelation resonated with many people who have experienced autism in their families. The film told the story of Owen Suskind, a young man who was unable to speak as a child until his family learned to communicate with him using the voices of the classic Disney characters he watched every day.
Mary Madec was one person who was inspired to share her story after watching the documentary. She joined Ryan Tubridy this morning to speak about her autistic twin brother, Andy, who she grew up with in rural Mayo in the 1960s. Myths around people with autism were common, with many believing they did not experience feelings and emotions.
But Mary says she never doubted that her brother was experiencing and engaging with the world around him, despite being unable to speak. Her earliest memories were of Andy marching up and down the path outside their home, singing the tune to an advertisement he’d heard. “So he was listening and engaging,” she said, “It reminded me of that Disney film.”
Their first breakthrough moment came when the family sat down to dinner one winter evening. Their mother asked if anyone would like more mashed potato and, to the astonishment of his family, Andy answered.
“This little voice we’d never heard before said, I would please and we were ecstatic and we thought, that was it, Andy was going to talk, that was the end of the silence. But of course he retreated back into silence.”
When Andy was 6 years old, his parents sent him to a facility for children with disabilities in Dublin. Mary said she felt like half a person when he was gone, and was delighted when he came back to live with the family. “We learned to read Andy and to listen to him in a way you don’t listen to other people,” she says. But that didn’t mean that others understood him.
“When I was growing up the reality is that very few people knew about my autistic twin. He didn’t feature not because I was ashamed of him. He didn’t feature because I couldn’t risk that somebody would reject him, and so my way to cope was to not talk about him.”
Andy now resides in a group home in Newport, Mayo, where he’s happy to live as part of the local community. Mary says he will never be released from the “prison of autism” but that he’s in good form these days. Attitudes have changed too, she says, and people like Andy are more accepted. She says that people with autistic family members should cherish their unique gifts.
“Never give up on the value of that person. Invest in it.”
To listen to the full interview, click here.
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