Blast off! Space-mad boy with autism inspires doll for kids on the spectrum

Hayden Geraghty was thrilled to meet ESA astronaut, Italian Paolo Nespoli, in CIT, Cork, this summer. Picture: Clare Keogh

It was blast-off for one boy’s development after happening to watch a rocket launch. Now he’s got his very own space doll, writes Áilín Quinlan

“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...” It was December 2015 and as astronaut Tim Peake blasted off from Kazakhstan en route to the International Space Station, no one could have been more surprised than Caroline Geraghty when her five-year-old loudly joined in the TV countdown.

Up to then, Hayden, who has autism and ADHD, had been virtually non-verbal. But the spectacle of Peake’s spacecraft leaving Earth ignited not only his ability to speak, it also sparked a fascination with astronauts and all things space-related.

The moving story of how Peake’s space mission led to Hayden’s verbal ‘awakening’ touched the hearts of toymakers at the internationally successful Lottie Doll company to such an extent that it decided to create a special doll inspired by Hayden and his experience of autism. The Loyal Companion Doll set, which comes complete with an autism assistance dog, is expected to go on sale for about €35 this month.

An only child, Hayden, eight, now has his very own regular column in the kids’ pages of the Astronomy Ireland magazine.

Although Caroline, 41, is herself a writer for the journal, she had no idea Hayden was interested in space until that fateful morning in mid-December 2015. “Tim Peake was launching on a six-month stay on the International Space Station and it completely grabbed Hayden’s attention.

Hayden Geraghty with Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor for ESA open day.
Hayden Geraghty with Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor for ESA open day.

“As the rocket launched, he said his first full sentence — he started doing the countdown and shouted ‘Blast off!’

“Up to that he had trouble communicating — he’d say the odd word but could not piece it all together,” she explains, adding that she believes the sight of the blast-off ‘unlocked’ a connection in Hayden’s brain, bringing about “a lightbulb switch-on moment”.

Caroline says: “Up to then the connection part of his brain would not allow him to speak but it suddenly unlocked and he’s been chatting ever since. Before it was very hard to gauge what Hayden was about, and what he liked or was interested in, and from that moment it carried on.

“Now he loves space and astronomy and goes to different astronomy and space events and has met several astronauts.”

Hayden Geraghty with astronaut André Kuipers.
Hayden Geraghty with astronaut André Kuipers.

Caroline and Hayden travelled from the family home in Limavaddy, Co Derry, to attend European Space Agency open day in the Netherlands on October 7. Hayden brought along his Loyal Companion Doll, which he is fervently hoping Peake or another astronaut will take into space on a future mission. Peake brought another Lottie Doll, the Stargazer Doll, with him on a previous voyage.

Hayden, says his mum, is hugely excited about the doll, which he proudly displayed to several astronauts at the event — the boy is already on first-name terms with astronauts such as Chris Hatfield and Helen Sharman, as well as Peake.

Lottie Doll chief executive Ian Harkin said the Loyal Companion Doll was designed in consultation with Hayden — hence the doll’s bright red ear defenders, sophisticated flight suit and autism assistance dog. 

“We met Hayden a number of times and discussed what we would put into the pack.

“Hayden explained that he was hoping to get an assistance dog, and so we included that in the pack,” says Harkin.

The Loyal Companion Doll
The Loyal Companion Doll

The company is based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, and exports to 30 countries.

Harkin says it is “very strong on inclusion” — its cochlear implant doll, produced last year, received a hugely positive reaction. “It ended up being one of our best sellers last year.”

He says that when children experience a diversity of toys in ethnicity and in terms of ability, they can develop empathy towards the challenges that children of all kinds might face in the real world.

“The dolls are a great way of introducing the concept of diversity. Dolls can be representative of people and role play is a great way to start that discussion — children become normalised to children from different backgrounds,” he says.

We want to teach kids about what autism is — hence the assistance dog, and the ear defenders which Hayden wears; the doll’s ear defenders are like those which help with sensory issues around loud noises.

The doll’s flight suit signifies Hayden’s fascination with outer space and the pack comes complete with another outfit carrying the names of scientists Nikolai Tesla and Albert Einstein, believed to be on the autism spectrum.

Inspiring a doll like this has been a huge learning curve for Hayden, says mum Caroline. “He could not believe that boys and girls all around the world will have a doll like him — it has helped him understand that if you have ideas you can achieve anything!”

The Loyal Companion Doll set the Derry boy has inspired.
The Loyal Companion Doll set the Derry boy has inspired.

Since news of his doll broke, he has participated in a number of media interviews — in fact one BBC interview even prompted Tim Peake to send Hayden a message.

“It’s incredible to see how much Hayden has developed to be able to do that -— he loves to tell everyone about his story,” says Caroline.

“When Hayden was non-verbal we found it hard to find toys he liked — it was hard to find things that would be relevant and would help him with communications. It is fantastic to have this doll on the market, one that is like him.”

Meanwhile it’s a case of watch this space because the Lottie Doll company certainly does not intend to rest on its laurels. “We have a lot more products like this in the pipeline for next year on diversity,” says Harkin.

“There is a variety of dolls at the planning stage, which represent diversity in terms of people with different abilities.”

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