This Is Nicholas - a new Irish documentary about growing up with Asperger’s syndrome in a rural town

Helen O’Callaghan talks to filmmaker Nicholas Ryan-Purcell about his new documentary and growing up with Asperger’s syndrome.

A new documentary set to screen at Cork’s Gate Cinema next Tuesday evening is a movie about many things.

This Is Nicholas — Living With Autism Spectrum Disorder is about a mother’s recognition of a son’s difficulties and her unstoppable determination to see him through.

It is a documentary that opened the floodgates of emotion for its maker, Nicholas Ryan-Purcell, finally allowing him to let go the emotional trauma around a childhood bereavement.

And it’s above all a tribute of deep gratitude to the people – many of them in the rural community of Emly, Co Tipperary – who helped Nicholas “navigate through challenging times”, the struggles posed by having Asperger’s syndrome as well as depression.

Now 29 and living independently in Nenagh since April 2018, Nicholas is an award-winning documentary maker. He’s very thankful to the IMC group of directors for putting the documentary into 11 of their cinemas countrywide.

“I think it’s fantastic they’re helping to educate and raise awareness of autism in all these regions,” he says.

From an early age, Nicholas’s mother, Dorothy, knew he was different.

“He knew all his colours and shapes. He’d see the gable end of a house and he’d say ‘triangle’ — he’d say it 500 times,” she says in the documentary.

“He was reading, writing and spelling way beyond his years, but he didn’t understand what he was reading, writing or spelling. He could only say words but he wasn’t joining them to make sentences.”

Dorothy tells how when Nicholas was almost five, everybody was saying he should start school, and she was panicking, knowing he was nowhere near ready. And then a woman in the community told her: ‘You know your own child best — if you think it’s better to leave him at home for another year, then leave him at home for another year’. It was, says Dorothy, like a 10-ton weight was taken off her shoulders.

“It changed everything.”

This is just one example of how people in the community reached out to Nicholas and to his family and made a difference.

Another key influencer in his young life was neighbour John Joe McGrath, who included Nicholas in his school run, bringing him home every afternoon.

Nicholas describes how — as soon as he got in the car — John Joe would ask how school had gone that day, what was the highlight. “He’d tell me about his wife, his two sons and his greyhounds. He was kind and compassionate. He gave me time to talk when I needed to get out my emotions. He was a grandfather and guardian angel figure. He made me feel happy about myself.”

Then one afternoon, when Nicholas was in third class, John Joe didn’t turn up.

I walked out and just didn’t see [his] car. I thought: ‘Where was he? Where was he? Had he forgotten me?’ Until one of the parents told me he had died of a heart attack earlier that day. Things began to crumble for me and break in two because I knew I wasn’t ever going to see him again and he was gone

In the documentary, Nicholas describes poignantly how, at the funeral, the church was “packed full to capacity”, yet “felt so cold, dark and empty”. At the age of 10, it was like a light bulb suddenly switched off and an “almighty depression” set in.

Describing it to Feelgood, he says: “It felt like I was looking through tinted glasses — everything was darker. I was combated by a terrible critical inner voice that always knocked me.”

Nicholas’s dad, Oliver, says his wife Dorothy’s constant attention, care and concern for her son was what saved him. “Without her, he could have ended up any way at all.”

Throughout the documentary, mother of two Dorothy (Nicholas’s sister, Joanna, is two years younger) comes across as refreshingly honest and direct.

“My job is not to be liked by my child — my job is to make sure my child is liked by everybody else,” she says, around teaching Nicholas to behave appropriately with others.

Nicholas was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome aged 13 and when people asked her the question: “Why label your child?”, Dorothy was quick to respond: “Why not?”.

“Nicholas needed help and if it took a label to get him help, bring on the label.”

From early on, Dorothy knew there “always had to be light at the end of the tunnel” for Nicholas, something for him to look forward to. “Whatever he was interested in, Oliver and I made sure we took him to those places.”

Nicholas himself explains that intense focus on a subject enabled him to brush away the negative thoughts.

So when he was interested in Scania trucks, Dorothy bought him a model of one and a family connection brought him on a trip on a ‘real-life’ Scania vehicle.

“He lived on that joy for at least a month after,” says Dorothy, who’d also bring him to Limerick Junction because “the presence of trains always gave [him] a sense of exhilaration”.

When Nicholas was aged 15, Oliver saw an ad about a steam train coming to Wexford. The family went to see it. “Steam trains were [Nicholas’] saviour,” says Dorothy.

Through Dubliner Wesley Riddall — who became another guardian angel figure for Nicholas — he got to know the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland.

“The stewards, driver and crew always encouraged me — they gave me that internal lift,” he recalls in the documentary. “They were Nicholas’s second family,” says Dorothy.

Some time earlier, she’d bought him an analogue camcorder and it was soon clear he had a flair for film-making. Before long, he insisted he needed a digital camcorder and Dorothy said she’d get it for him after he’d put the last piece on a Titanic model he was making. She kept her word.

“With people with Asperger’s you have to keep your promise,” she says.

Nicholas’s first feature-length film — Against The Odds, Racing With Gordon Lord Byron — centred upon the story of race horse Gordon Lord Byron, famous for winning races internationally.

The movie won two prizes, editing and best foreign feature, at a documentary festival in Hollywood.

His current documentary, This is Nicholas, premiered at the NYC Mental Health Film Festival, Manhattan last October. Nicholas’s purpose in creating the film was to “revisit the places that were significant and to acknowledge the people who navigated me through challenging times”.

He has done it admirably. From the Burke farming family in Emly, who “invited me into their house and made me feel so good about myself” to Buteyko Breath therapist Charles Maguire, who helped Nicholas with his depression, this hopeful, optimistic documentary’s big message is that it takes a village to rear a child — and the village is even more important when the child has special needs.

A special showing of This is Nicholas - Living With Autism Spectrum Disorder at the Gate Cinema, Cork, Tuesday, January 29 at 6.30pm.

Tickets at: www.onlinecinematickets.com

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