With her model looks, pristine mansion and successful TV career, Christine McGuinness has come a long way from the council estate where she grew up. What makes it all the more remarkable is that she spent the first 33 years of her life unaware that she has autism.
Now, the 34-year-old Liverpudlian understands why life was so hard for her during her teenage years and is going on a mission to find out how autism affects young girls and what can be done to help them.
But her new documentary Christine McGuinness: Unmasking My Autism is not an easy watch, revealing that autistic women are 13 times more likely to die by suicide than neurotypical women, are extremely vulnerable to sexual violence and that more than a third of women treated for eating disorders at London’s Maudsley Hospital meet the criteria for autism spectrum disorder.
As a teenager, Christine was affected by all three of these issues – suffering sexual abuse, developing an eating disorder and wishing herself dead. The show is a hard watch but Christine makes no apology for tackling such difficult subjects. “It’s better if you are prepared,” says Christine, whose three children are also autistic. “I worry about my three but the more I understand autism, the less scared I am because I can prepare for those things.”
Christine has nine-year-old twins Penelope and Leo and six-year-old Felicity with her husband, TV presenter Paddy McGuinness, 49, who she split up with last year.
She continues: “I’m looking out for things that other parents might not look out for because I know what to expect. I’ve lived through it myself but I’m researching and understanding it so much now. It’s less scary when you know about it, if you’re aware that your daughter might be at a higher risk of having episodes of feeling really low when she’s a teenager or at any point throughout her life. It can happen to anybody but if you know there’s more of a risk if your child is autistic, then you can be more prepared to deal with it. I want the next generation to be more aware of things that might happen to them.”
During her own teenage years Christine developed an eating disorder which spiralled after she became overwhelmed on her first and only visit to her loud and chaotic high school canteen. “I’m five foot 10 and my lowest weight was six-and-a-half stone,” she says. “I was very, very tiny. I had no periods for years, quite severe anaemia, fainting quite a lot, dizzy spells. Just, yeah, really not in a good place at all.”
Now, Christine believes her ordeal could have been avoided if she’d been diagnosed with ASD and those around her had realised it was sensory issues that were stopping her eating – not a desire to be thin.
“I really wanted to make sure that the documentary covered an autistic girl with an eating disorder because, unfortunately, it’s quite common and it shouldn’t be,” she says. “They’re misunderstood. If the disorder is down to rituals or sensory issues, then it needs a different treatment plan, an autism-friendly treatment plan.”
Christine’s own doctors encouraged her to eat a rainbow diet of fruit and vegetables – the very foods that terrified her. Now she makes sure her children have options to eat food they are comfortable with alongside more adventurous food when they are feeling open to new things. “I will push the boundaries slightly when I feel like I can because I want them to have a really healthy, varied diet, but to avoid them getting that actual eating disorder, I’m going to allow them to eat dry, beige food when they like.”
Her eating disorder was just one part of Christine’s misery. She was also sexually abused by a family friend from aged nine to 13, before being raped by a boy from her school when she was still a teenager.
Autistic girls can be more vulnerable to predators because they are often very trusting and want to please people and fit in. Christine would like to see better sex education for autistic girls – particularly around the issue of consent. “They need all the help and support they can get, especially when it comes to sex education,” she warns.
“They need to make sure that they fully understand what consent is. Autistic girls typically do want to fit and people please and do give into peer pressure a lot more than a neurotypical girl. It’s something that petrifies me as a mum of two young girls and a boy. It’s scary. The more people who know this could be an issue for them the better they might be looked after. It shouldn’t happen to anybody.”
Christine’s traumatic years saw her turn to alcohol and drink heavily to try to both blot out the pain and also to fit in. “It was an escape. When I was drunk, I realised that you’re not really yourself.”
Christine sobered up at the age of 19 and hasn’t touched alcohol since. “I’ve been teetotal for 15 years because
I knew it was becoming something I was relying on to just not have to deal with being in my own head.”
Christine’s documentary proves her story isn’t an unusual one. But by shining a light on autism, she knows she is helping. Just last week she had a message from an autistic woman who said Christine’s story had given her hope and she no longer planned to die by suicide.
“I have had people reach out and it does go to that extreme,” says Christine.
Last year, she and Paddy decided to tell their children about their autism diagnoses. “It just happened naturally,” she explains. “And they were all absolutely great and not bothered about it, didn’t bat an eyelid. They were just like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. We already know.’”
Christine says she is happiest when she is at home with her children. Even though she split up with Paddy last year and he has recently been linked to presenter Kirsty Gallacher, Christine isn’t thinking about dating again. “I’m just focused on the children, on the work and that’s it. I don’t like change, I’m still dealing with separation and all of that.”
Instead she’s just enjoying her children growing up. “Who is the biggest support in my life? It’s my children and they don’t even know it,” she says. “The love and support, the laughter that they give me, the way that they’re growing up and dealing with their own little challenges at such a young age, gives me all the motivation and inspiration I need and that’s my support.”
For her children, she aims to prove that autism doesn’t mean their lives should be limited. “I say to my children all the time, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve.”
Christine McGuinness: Unmasking My Autism airs on Wednesday, 9pm, BBC One and iPlayer
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