Avlyn McKeown was not expecting to have triplets, let alone three boys with autism and intellectual disability. But now aged 6 and in school, they are the apples of their mother’s eye, writes Noel Baker
It’s just as well Avlyn McKeown is a fan of baking, because she had three cakes to prepare for May 4 last.
It was a triple-birthday for her triplet boys, Alex, Kyle, and Rian: Identical triplets, which is a rare enough phenomenon; IVF babies on what was Avlyn’s last attempt at motherhood; and three lads who have been diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability, and who are the apples of their mother’s eye.
The lads all turned six last Wednesday, a cause for celebration at how far they have come despite the challenges. According to Avlyn, a single mother living in Cobh, Co Cork: “Mammy has been flat out baking all day yesterday.”
Baking, she says, “is a form of therapy for me”. Later, they popped candles on all three cakes and sang happy birthday. Her three boys may be non-verbal, but they can certainly communicate. Rian had been asking his mum to keep singing happy birthday, signalling by placing his thumb under his mother’s mouth. According to Avlyn, the lads might have been unaware of their birthday, but there would be a party. “We’re keeping it low-key, just my family.”
Things have been a little less low-key of late for Avlyn, not least following her radio interview with Ryan Tubridy which drew a hugely positive response from listeners.
So, birthday cakes aside, what is a regular day in the McKeown household? Avlyn explains that routine is king. “You have to have a routine when you have triplets,” she says. “I would be quite regimented.”
The alarm call gets her up at 6.30am, if one of the lads hasn’t already done so. She freely admits that some nights she might have to get by on just one or two hours’ sleep, but once up, it’s a case of getting breakfast on and preparing the lads for the day ahead.
By 9.20am they are all in Scoil Aislinn in Cork, where Kyle and Rian are in one class and Alex, who has more complex needs than his brothers, is in another. It was the same when they were in the Shine Centre before they began in Scoil Aislinn last September, and Avlyn says she’s happy they are not always together as she makes sure to treat her sons as individuals.
The lads love school, where they stay until 2pm while Avlyn gets on with the chores. “I don’t really do that much for myself,” she says. “I don’t go for pampering, like I should, or walks. I do the washing, ironing, make the beds....”
Then her boys are back, unless there is an outing. Life is getting easier, bit by bit, she says. As an example, Avlyn recalls going for new footwear earlier in the week.
“Normally I would be in balls of sweat bringing the three of them, having them doing wreck in the shop,” she chuckles, referring to the sensory overload that can affect them. “But they breezed through it. They were absolutely fantastic.”
She praises the staff at Scoil Aislinn for their role in this positive development, citing the social outings organised by the school for its students, which in turn helps to develop their coping mechanisms. She says her view is “they are children first, it’s autism second”.
It has been quite the journey to get to this point. She freely admits that, had the IVF treatment not worked, “I was getting a puppy”. The discovery, following a scan just seven or eight weeks into her pregnancy, that she was having identical triplets was something else altogether, “a one-in-five-million chance”.
“I saw the three little flutters [on the screen] and I nearly fell off the bed,” she laughs. She was told it was a high-risk pregnancy. No baby items were bought in advance and she was told she would be scanned every week and, if everything progressed until week 30, then the chances of survival would have increased considerably.
On May 10, 2010, the boys were born 10 weeks premature by emergency C-section, the heaviest weighing three pounds, one ounce. Their health, however, was good — they were all home after seven weeks, though there was a warning that it could take them 18 months to fully catch up to a full-term baby.
Understandably, with those words at the back of her mind, Avlyn says she didn’t notice anything untoward regarding the boys’ development. There were the usual sleepless nights, but Avlyn’s own mum began to pick up some signals. After this, Avlyn began keeping track of the milestones and raised her concerns with a public health nurse, who recommended it be investigated.
An initial assessment in Cork resulted in a referral to Bridgeway, linked to the Cope Foundation, and then came the diagnosis: Not just autism, but also intellectual disability. Avlyn says she had more than an inkling about the former, but the latter hit her hard. “I’ll never forget the shock of hearing those words,” she says. “I did cry and I did get a shock, I did ask ‘why me?’. But then it was ‘why not me?’
“The first day was more like mourning, more about the intellectual disability. I ran away with myself about the future, but I realised I have to get on day to day. You can’t plan too far in advance.
“Of course I would change it, of course I would prefer it if they did not have autism or an intellectual disability, but it’s the road that I have to travel.
“I would be a very, very strong and positive person. I have a very positive outlook. I have three gorgeous, healthy, happy, mischievous boys. They have their issues but we have great fun and I love them unconditionally.”
Parents, up and down the country, of children on the autism spectrum have their stories of battling bureaucracy and dealing with under-resourced services , and for Avlyn, it’s been multiplied by three. The first assessment, she says, took a year-and-a-half. It was “a nightmare”, particularly since she wanted all her boys assessed individually. She laments the shortage of resources when it comes to speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.
While Avlyn has nothing but praise for Scoil Aislinn, she says the overall education situation is “absolutely disgraceful”. She says the school was able to raise its capacity to get the boys in, but there are 70 children on the waiting list, which can’t take any new pupils in this year because none are leaving. Units in mainstream schools are fine, she says, if your child is high-functioning and likely to be able to go into mainstream education. But what if they are not?
In society, however, the situation does appear to be improving, though there are still people who are not autism-aware. Avlyn uses the example of a child with autism lying on the floor, kicking and screaming in the supermarket. “I wonder why people don’t come up and ask ‘do you need help?’,” says Avlyn.
As a family they tried bringing in a service dog but such was the helter-skelter environment in the house, the dog was the odd one out. But there is no doubt progress is being made. “My aim and ambition for the boys is to push them to the limit and get them to their full potential,” says Avlyn. “I have no idea what their full potential is, but it’s my aim to get them to reach it.”
The days are long and intense, and even if her tyros are all tucked up in bed by 8pm, Avlyn knows they can be up and about at various times during the night. Little wonder then that, with the baking done, she was looking forward to a little ‘treat to self’ once the birthday party was over.
“I might have a glass of wine,” she laughs. “I think I deserve it.”
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