This summer, 13-year-old Co Monaghan schoolboy Sean Collins dyed his hair shocking pink to celebrate his sister’s finally getting a diagnosis that explains her severe intellectual difficulties.
Kathryn is a “toddler in a 15-year-old’s body”, says mum Annette. She has SAT B2, a rare genetic syndrome involving chromosomal deletion.
Sean, a second-year pupil, loves history, rugby and scouts. He’s full of fun and “brings laughter into the house”, says his mum. “He’s mature beyond his years and very responsible.”
Last month, Sean became the youngest award-recipient among four regional Young Carers of the Year. Having pink hair for two weeks, and fundraising to the tune of over €2,000 for Kathryn’s school — Holy Family Special School, Cootehill — is just one in a long list of caring actions he performs daily for his sister.
“He’s been helping forever, since he’s been up and walking and talking himself. Kathryn has no imaginative play, so she doesn’t like watching TV. She loves photos of animals. From a young age, Sean would draw her pictures of cats.”
Because Annette’s GP husband, Donal, worked long hours Sean “got used to mucking in — it fell naturally to him to help out”. Kathryn uses basic Makaton signs to communicate. Sean understands them as well as Annette does.
When Annette was hit by cancer for the second time in five years last February, Donal gave up work to care for her and their daughter. “Kathryn wasn’t used to Donal in a caring routine. That’s when Sean came into his own. The biggest difficulty has always been her challenging behaviour — she’s always on the go and never sits down. Sean knows how to keep her busy, how to distract her.”
The teenager has also fallen into a caring role at Special Olympics, which Kathryn attends weekly. “He enjoys the athletes. He has no difficulty whether they’ve got a communication or physical problem. He jollies them along. He says he prefers going to Special Olympics than some of his own sports because there’s no jealousy.”
Annette says because of her intellectual difficulties, Kathryn can be “a bit of a diva – it’s all about her”. Sean didn’t get to play with Lego, do jigsaws or play board games. “Kathryn would see these as something to pull apart. He’d have lost out on a bit of attention.”
But what he has gained, says Annette, outweighs the losses — such as some wonderful friends, also siblings of other children with special needs.
- 10th Annual Carers of the Year Awards honoured 25 family carers.
- Six out of 25 regional award-winners are male — correlating with census breakdown of carers: approximately 25% male/75% female.
- Almost one-third of 2016 award recipients are aged 65 or older.
- Half of these have been caring for more than 10 years, with some providing care for more than 40 years.
- 2015 saw significant increase in volume of entries for Young Carer of the Year.