As a teenager Christine McGuinness was sexually abused, developed an eating disorder and spent her nights praying she wouldn’t wake up in the morning.
Now in her new BBC documentary Christine McGuinness: Unmasking My Autism, the TV star has discovered her story isn’t unusual among women with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Since she was diagnosed age 33, Christine’s life has changed for the better but she can’t help wondering if an earlier diagnosis could have saved her from the turbulent and bewildering heartbreak of her teenage years.
On the show Christine unearths some shocking stories and statistics about what it means to be an autistic woman. One of the starkest statistics she encounters is a 2016 study which found autistic women are 13 times more likely to take their own lives than neurotypical women.
Autistic women are also more frequently victims of sexual and domestic abuse and, according to doctors at the National Specialist Eating Disorders Service at London’s top Maudsley Hospital, 35 per cent of the women they treat meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD.
Christine developed an eating disorder at high school and was sexually abused by a family friend from aged nine to 13, before being raped by a boy from her school when she was a teenager.
“I had been sexually abused,” reveals Christine. “I was raped. I’d pray every night that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning just because it was so awful.”
Now Christine wants to shine a light on the darkness and explore ways to help girls and women suffering from autism to understand and overcome their vulnerabilities.
“I want my children to grow up in a world that fully understands them and includes them and accepts them,” says Christine who was diagnosed with autism after her three children Leo and Penelope, 9,and Felicity, 6, received their diagnoses. “But it's not just for my children. This is for all children. It's for the younger generation.”
Hospital waiting lists are long, but Christine knows that an autism diagnosis can be life changing for women, particularly those who fear they are going mad or who have been wrongly diagnosed with mental illnesses. “It could potentially save lives,” explains Christine. “It could stop a young girl turning into a severely depressed teenager who may be suicidal or who may have an eating disorder or have terrible anxiety… I want to avoid all of the things that may come if you’re not actually diagnosed and looked after properly.”
Since she was diagnosed, Christine’s life has changed beyond recognition. For starters, she’s found the strength to end her marriage to TV presenter and comic Paddy McGuinness after spending 15 years together. When she is asked in her documentary if she “felt more able to have left” after her diagnosis, Christine replies, “Yes, because I know that I’ve stayed in a place where I was probably unhappy because it was safe. I don’t like change and ultimately I wanted to keep my family together.”
When Hannah Hayward, Neurodevelopmental Specialist at Kings College London, reveals that 9 out of ten of the autistic women she works with have suffered sexual abuse, Christine isn’t surprised. “I experienced that a long long time ago and I never spoke up. I wonder if I never said it because I was autistic. Was it me? Would a neurotypical woman have said something?”
It’s a tough subject but Christine feels that if autistic women and girls and the people around them knew they were more vulnerable, they might be able to stop future abuse. “The abuse I suffered started when I was only 9 years old,” says Christine, “and I wonder how many things in life could have been avoided if I had an earlier diagnosis and more support at school.”
The trauma of that abuse left Christine feeling vulnerable until Paddy came along and changed everything. “When I met my husband, that’s a time where I felt very safe and I wonder if that’s why I stayed in that relationship for 15 years,” says Christine. “We’re separated now and I know being a single woman, being a single parent is an extremely vulnerable place to be and it absolutely petrifies me, but that’s life.”
Now Christine is on a personal mission to find out who she really is. And learning to be single is a big part of that. “I played that many different roles in life and not really knowing which parts of it was actually me, or which one was mostly me,” shares Christine. “I've been with my husband for 15 years and that's a whole other journey that I'm going to have to figure out how to be single.”
Being diagnosed so late in life left Christine questioning her own sanity. “There's been times in life where I've thought 'I am mad, I need to be sectioned, what I think in my head is not normal…’ But now I just accept that that's me. I haven't got a split personality or bipolar.” Christine adds, “It's just simply that I'm autistic and now that I know that, I understand the way that my mind runs a bit wild sometimes.”
These days, Christine knows when she needs to cancel plans, reduce her time on social media and relax to avoid feeling overwhelmed and burned out. In the past she would have felt unable to cope, particularly during her turbulent teenage years. “When I was a teenager I used to think I would rather not live, than have to live like this. I'm so glad that I don't think like that anymore,” she says.
Suffering from an eating disorder in her teens saw Christine’s weight plummet to six-and-a-half stones – not much when you’re five feet and ten inches tall. Convinced that she was afraid of putting on weight, doctors encouraged her to eat a healthy rainbow diet, telling her that fruit and vegetables would not make her fat. However, Christine now realises her eating disorder was driven by her sensory issues that are associated with autism such as a fear of new or unusual textures. Their advice made her illness worse.
In her documentary, Christine discovers that over a third of anorexia patients at London’s Maudsley Hospital meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis and reveals that Dr Kate Tchanturia has made a breakthrough with her autism-friendly treatment plan. But with many women and girls going undiagnosed, Christine is worried youngsters like her will be offered the wrong treatment. “It breaks my heart when I think of all the patients being treated in a way that’s not suitable for them,” says Christine. “It’s not going to work.”
When she revealed her diagnosis, Christine feared no one would believe her and that work would dry up. “They're not seeing the real me at home struggling,” she says. “I was worried that it might affect work, I was worried that on a TV show like The Games, for example, a member of the production team might go, 'She'd be great, but she's autistic. Is that gonna make it more difficult?’” Luckily, she has had the opposite experience and people have accepted her diagnosis and adapted to the way she likes to work – with lots of notice so she can prepare at her own pace.
Now she’s feeling confident to say yes to new challenges. She’d even fancy taking part in Strictly Come Dancing or I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! “I want to try and say yes to opportunities. With Strictly Come Dancing you can learn a skill but I am very clumsy and all over the place. I don’t promise to be good if I ever do Strictly!” She’s less keen on the jungle but wants to push herself. She says, “I’d struggle being put in gunge and to be able to eat things. But again, I want to try and do things that scare me. I wouldn't rule them out!”
In some way, Christine says all of her TV appearances have helped make her the person she is today but looking back at footage of herself on The Real Housewives Of Cheshire, she can see that she was “masking” or pretending to be someone else for approval and acceptance.
“I can see a big difference in where I started, to where I am now just in myself,” Christine says. “I can see in the Real Housewives of Cheshire how much I was just trying to fit in. Every show that I've done has helped me in some way. When I went on The Real Full Monty that was the first time I'd worked with people that I didn't know. By the time I got to The Games I knew about the diagnosis and I had a lot of time to help myself. Doing this completely on my own, I think I've managed to do a really authentic job.”
But most of all she wants to make more documentaries and keep helping other people with autism. “I'd love to do more still around autism, but I'd love to do other documentaries as well,” says Christine. “I only want to do stuff really if it's going to help others or if it's an experience.”
One thing Christine still struggles with is friendships but there is nowhere she’d rather be than at home, with Leo and Penelope, 9 and Felicity, 6. “It’s quite a normal thing for girls to have lots of girlfriends and that was never me and it still isn't. But I'm very fortunate that I have got three children to keep me busy and I don't want to be with anybody more than them.”
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