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Christine McGuinness on parenting her three autistic children

Exclusive: "It has got easier since I was diagnosed with autism too as it gives the kids and I an even more special bond," she says.

Here, the mother-of-three shares her experience of parenting 10-year-old twins Penelope and Leo, and seven-year-old Felicity – all of whom have autism. She also reveals how she manages to juggle her career around her family and makes the set-up work with ex-husband Paddy McGuinness who she still lives with.

Christine McGuinness attending TRIC (The Television and Radio Industries Club) awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London (June 2023). (Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images)
Christine McGuinness attending TRIC (The Television and Radio Industries Club) awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London (June 2023). (Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images)

Model and TV personality Christine McGuinness is rarely out of the public eye. From her marriage to now ex-partner Paddy McGuinness in 2011 and her role in The Real Housewives of Cheshire seven years later to her modelling career and work as an autism campaigner after her own diagnosis in 2021, rarely a day passes when the 36-year-old is not in the press. With a new TV show Pilgrimage out this week – which sees her and six other celebrities tackle a modern-day pilgrimage along the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way – Christine spoke to Yahoo exclusively...

You’ve been an incredible support for people with autism, speaking out about your own diagnosis, and your children’s too. What have been the biggest challenges you've faced as a mother of three autistic kids?

"There have been so many hurdles I've had to overcome but I absolutely love being a mum and it has got easier since I was diagnosed as it gives the kids and I an even more special bond. We are in the same gang! It is not so much challenges but a learning curve I have been on where I now understand what works for the kids and what doesn’t. I can talk about autism and people have heard about it but there is a real lack of understanding about what it is. For example, my girls Penelope and Felicity may seem to an outsider to be quiet and shy but the truth is their autism means they like spending time alone and don’t need to be socialising like other kids do.

My girls Penelope and Felicity may seem to an outsider to be quiet and shy but the truth is their autism means they like spending time alone and don’t need to be socialising like other kids do.

"As the years have gone by, I know what causes them to be happy or uncomfortable in an environment and I now understand things like when I need to ask the school to step in and up their support for the kids or when I have to turn down a party invitation as the noise is far too much for them to cope with."

Christine McGuinness at the Vanish x Ambitious About Autism launch exhibition for 'Me, My Autism, & I' at gallery@oxo in London (March 2023). (Kate Green/Getty Images for Vanish)
Christine McGuinness at the Vanish x Ambitious About Autism launch exhibition for 'Me, My Autism, & I' at gallery@oxo in London (March 2023). (Kate Green/Getty Images for Vanish)

How does their autism manifest itself?

"Leo is very different to the girls as he tends to visually jump around, whereas they are much quieter and like to play alone. All of them have sensitivities to the taste, smell and texture of foods, and have sensory issues too. When they were younger, unlike other kids, they would hate going to things like soft play centres and trampoline parks as it was a sensory overload to them. Even play dates were difficult. I have noticed the girls do not talk about their feelings, which is common for autistic children, so I will be keeping an eye on that.

When they were younger, unlike other kids, they would hate going to things like soft play centres and trampoline parks as it was a sensory overload to them. Even play dates were difficult.

"One of the things I like to do with the kids to keep a calm environment at home is to read with them, and have lots of snuggles. We all love books and that is why I am so proud and excited that my second one is coming out soon. It is all about friendship and discovery where kids go on an adventure and I touch upon autism in it as it should be such an inclusive thing, and is a good way to educate my readers who want to learn more about the condition."

Are you friends with other mums of children with autism? How have you been able to support each other?

"I am so lucky as I always found it hard to socialise with other people as I felt awkward but my best friend Cath has been incredibly supportive; I am so grateful we have each other. She also has children who are autistic and my safest place is just being with her. We totally get each other and when her three kids and mine are together it just works. That is my happy place, the eight of us being together."

Christine McGuinness at the Football For Change Charity Gala 2023 at Emirates Old Trafford in Manchester (November 2023). (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)
Christine McGuinness at the Football For Change Charity Gala 2023 at Emirates Old Trafford in Manchester (November 2023). (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

How do you juggle your work around the kids?

"I don’t want my autism, or theirs to hold me back from doing anything and so I am now agreeing to opportunities such as TV shows like the Pilgrimage, which I absolutely loved being a part of. Since my diagnosis, it’s really made me want to just get out there and grab opportunities with both hands. I want to say yes to more things that I would always say no to in the past, because I find socialising quite awkward.

"I don’t really like being pushed out of my comfort zone, but I’m realising more and more that I want to live, I want to do more things, I want to have good memories, I want to make friends, I want to learn more about other people, and the only way I can do that is by pushing myself a bit.

I want to say yes to more things that I would always say no to in the past, because I find socialising quite awkward.

"It is all about juggling family and work like so many other people do. I am lucky because my mum lives about an hour away from our home and the kids absolutely love their nan so she will always step in to help and spoil them rotten. And their dad Paddy is often home so he is able to help too. I was away filming Pilgrimage for over two weeks and I was just so relieved to have Facetime and let the kids know mummy was just an hour away if they needed me."

What roles do you and Paddy each have within the family?

"We both co-parent the kids."

You and Paddy are living in the same house even though you have separated. How have you made that work?

"We just do. We have to for the sake of the kids and even though we live together, Paddy and I just come and go for work. At the moment, it works. For now. There have been a lot of changes for all of us and it is just about learning how to adapt and ensure our three beautiful children are ok. Sometimes change has to happen."

What advice would you give to other parents with autistic children?

"Be patient. And don’t worry about what other people think and if you get stared at if your kid has a meltdown in public. I think it is important to know you don’t always have to fit in to what people think is the norm. If your kids don’t want to go on playdates, don’t force them. Don’t try and make them conform to what other people think they should be."

Christine McGuinness on new BBC show, Pilgrimage: The Road Through North Wales (March 2024) with Eshaan Akbar, Sonali Shah, Tom Rosenthal, Michaela Strachan, Spencer Matthews and Amanda Lovett (BBC/CTVC).
Christine McGuinness on new BBC show, Pilgrimage: The Road Through North Wales (March 2024) with Eshaan Akbar, Sonali Shah, Tom Rosenthal, Michaela Strachan, Spencer Matthews and Amanda Lovett (BBC/CTVC).

Pilgrimage: The Road Through North Wales is on Fridays at 9pm from 29 March on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer