Teenage autism crusader leaves powerful legacy

The head of a leading autism support group has paid tribute to the remarkable legacy of a fearless teenage autism advocate who lost her battle with leukaemia.

Kevin Whelan, the chief executive of Irish Autism Action, said Niamh Cadogan, 17, from Caheragh in West Cork, was an inspirational figure.

“The autism community in Ireland lost a truly exceptional young lady,” he said.

Niamh was inspired by her younger brother, Stephen, who has autism, to work on a transition year project last year which resulted in every child attending the autism units of two local schools getting iPods preloaded with the Grace App, which helps them communicate.

“She was a wonderful girl, with loads of drive and enthusiasm,” Mr Whelan.

“She was the sort of person that, if Ireland is to get back on its feet, it’s teenagers like her, with that sort of enthusiasm and drive, that will help us move forward as a nation and culture.

“Her death is a sad loss but in that sadness, she leaves a lasting legacy of all that she has achieved in her short lifetime.

“There are children with autism around the country who are now communicating with their parents thanks to Niamh.”

Grace App developer Lisa Domican, who worked closely with Niamh over the last 18 months, said the teenager’s crusade also provided comfort to the parents of children with autism.

“She got the entire school behind her and made it happen. She appreciated and adored her brother, and realised that it made her a better person.

“Her work won’t stop. I would encourage anyone who wants to honour her memory, to get their local community behind them to support the autism units at their local schools.”

Niamh was buried yesterday after losing her battle with leukaemia on Monday.

A student of Mercy Heights Secondary School, Skibbereen, she was chairperson of a Young Social Innovators project called Amazing Grace: Improving the lives of Children with Autism in Skibbereen.

She and her friends organised a massive mobile phone recycling campaign which allowed them buy an iPod Touch with the Grace App installed for every child in the St Patrick’s Primary School Autism Unit and the new Rossa College Second Level Autism Unit.

But Niamh was diagnosed with leukaemia last year while in transition year.

She wrote movingly on the Young Social Innovators website about her treatment, and how, in spite of her illness, she was determined to attend the YSI showcase in Dublin later in the year.

She said her dream came true when her consultant, Dr Clodagh Ryan, gave her the green light to travel.

“I started to cry with delight. My wish was granted,” she said.

“The thrill I got when I was finally pushed up onto the stage. I sat there in my wheelchair and began to speak. I was doing it.

“My determination was paying off. I thought our presentation went fantastically and our questions from the judges weren’t too bad either.

“I believe only for YSI I would have not had the courage, hunger and determination to get up and walk again. I needed the encouragement that comes with YSI to do something positive.

“My passion was the project that meant so much to me.

“I put every spare moment I had into it and it achieved fantastic results, even more than we had planned to go out and do.”

Her campaigning was recognised in November when she won a West Cork Garda Youth Award.

She is survived by her parents, Denis and Jean, and her beloved brother, Stephen.

The family has asked that donations, if desired, go to the Amazing Grace Project.

* autismireland.ie

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