Boyzone's Keith Duffy has spoken about the joys and challenges he and wife Lisa have faced bringing up their autistic teenage daughter.
Mia, now 14,was diagnosed with autism when she was 18 months old. And Keith, 39, revealed that at times raising Mia tested her parents' relationship to breaking point.
"Thank God we stuck together, got through hard times and are still together."
The couple - who have been together for 20 years - first noticed Mia was different to other children on a trip to Disneyland when she was one and their son Jay was four.
Whenever she got excited she'd bend one hand and stretch out the other – which they now know is tensing. She slept very little, didn't hold eye contact or socialise well.
Keith said: "We thought she was deaf and took her for tests but they said her hearing was fine – something else might be wrong, but they weren't qualified to tell us.
"We were distraught – we were young and finding our way, we were worried sick. I could see my wife stressing so I tried to avoid the topic.
"Then I was asked to go to a golfing event for the Red Door School for the education of children with autism. I had no clue what autism was and when it was explained to me that it was a neurological developmental disorder of the brain, and all the symptoms, it became increasingly apparent my daughter was autistic, and I started to get very upset."
Keith went home and told Lisa his findings. He said: "She could see I'd been crying and she panicked. I just said 'Mia is autistic' and her initial reaction was to slap me.
"Then she burst into tears because we knew there was something, we just didn't have a name for it – now we did and it made it real."
From the age of two until seven, Mia had a one-to-one form of education called applied behavioural analysis, which has had huge success with kids in the US. Progress was slow and testing – but evident.
The couple had to be just as disciplined with her at home, including using a system called picture exchange communication which involved sticking a Polaroid picture of Mia's favourite things like food and toys on a Velcro chart, which they would use when she wanted something.
But there were times when Lisa and Keith struggled as a couple.
Keith said: "It happens. I work with a lot of families now and I see all the same signs we went through. We've had to work really hard to make it work but the common bond of our children brings us back together.
"We remember there was a reason we had our kids and that's because we love each other. A lot of couples break up but Lisa's my best mate and knows me inside out and back to front."
Then a major breakthrough came when she was seven. Keith said: "Mia spent a lot of time in her room watching musicals, Annie in particular, over and over again with the TV right in front of her.
"One Sunday we were watching TV and Mia ran into the room and just stopped and sang Tomorrow by Annie. She'd never spoken before in her life!
"She sang it like a deaf person would sing but we were just blown away. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. The education was moving in the right direction: the more the language came the more tactile she became and the more hugs you'd get."
Soon Mia was progressing so well she was integrated in to mainstream school for part of a day, which then increased to a full day, then three days until she was able to join the school full time.
Since her diagnosis, Keith has dedicated a lot of his time to raise money and awareness of autism. He's taken part in marathons, Ironman triathlons and cycle rides, and with the help of other parents has organised so many events and campaigns he was named National Philanthropist of the Year for his work with Irish Autism Action (IAA) last year.
He said: "We want to give every child with autism an opportunity of reaching their own full potential, whatever that may be."
He adds: "I got so lucky with Lisa. She's the best mother I've ever seen. I'm not just saying that because I'm biased but how you judge that is the love my children have for her. I joke I come a very far third; the kids come first, then the dogs and then me."
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