James McClean 'proud' of Autism diagnosis and says condition is 'nothing to be ashamed of'
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The Wigan Athletic star admits he was 'oblivious' to the symptoms of autism until his daughter Willow-Ivy was diagnosed at the age of four but, unbeknownst to him, it's been something he's lived with his entire life.
Since Willow's formal diagnosis it's been a daily education for James who describes that moment as 'life-changing' for his wife Erin and himself but says they now have 'a better outlook on life' having come to terms with their daughter's condition.
After winning his 98th international cap for Ireland against France at the Aviva Stadium on Monday, James took to social media to announce his diagnosis after an internal debate on whether or not to go public with the news.
In the end he decided he could use his status as an international footballer to spread awareness and, above all, the 'important message' that being autistic is 'nothing to be ashamed of' and doesn't have to hold you back in life.
That inspiring message is very much directed towards his young daughter who is learning to live with her sensory and communication issues.
His emotional Instagram post on World Autism Acceptance Week prompted an outpouring of praise and James hopes it can convince others who are reluctant to seek medical advice to reach out.
"I just felt, with the way Willow is, it was important to share it and because I have a bit of a profile it might raise some awareness for people who were like I was, completely oblivious to what autism is," explained the Creggan man.
"If I can raise any awareness and help Willow and others out there who may be a bit wary of getting tested themselves but maybe think they might have it, then it's been worth it.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of! Now that I have my official diagnosis, I'm proud of it because I am the person I am and it's served me fine. So I'm proud of it," he repeated.
"And I would say the same thing to anyone who is brave enough to go and get themselves diagnosed or parents who have autistic children; you can still go and achieve your dreams, definitely!"
It certainly hasn't held McClean back after a successful club career at the top level representing Sunderland, West Brom, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic. The 33 year-old father of four doesn't believe his diagnosis will affect his life negatively in any way but instead expects to develop a deeper bond with his 'amazing' autistic daughter.
"To be honest, Willow is five-and-a-half and we still don't know everything there is to know about autism," he added. "We're still learning from the things she does. You do have your hard days with Willow. Even the little simple things like going out in public. She is coming on and is absolutely brilliant. She does have hard days and moments but she's happy which is the main thing.
"You're obviously born with autism so I've had it my whole life. This is not something that just developed. I'm still learning myself. I've just found out that I'm on the spectrum. "There are people who are on the spectrum that have it a lot worse than we do. There are people who care for adults and children who are non-verbal and a lot more severe than us. As I said, we're just learning each day ourselves.
"The last four years have been life changing in the most amazing way, but also very difficult at times as her daddy watching her overcome so many obstacles in her life and learn how to manage the challenges she faces on a daily basis."
As both James and Erin developed a better understanding of the lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder through Willow's daily challenges, they began to recognise James had similar traits and triggers which can often exacerbate autism.
That prompted the former Derry City wideman to have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) assessment which confirmed his suspicions. Given the history of vile social media abuse his family has had to endure over the years, it's understandable he was initially reluctant to go public with the results of his diagnosis.
"It's a personal matter and I was debating about whether or not to go public with it," he admitted. "I wanted to raise awareness but I didn't want to blow it up and make it a massive deal about me. The main thing was for Willow.
"I just thought, you know what, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Like I said, I was debating whether or not to go public and the only reason I did was for Willow and to get a better understanding of Willow and, to be honest, get a better understanding of myself and how I might react in certain situations.
"Now that I've got an official diagnosis and I have a daughter who is autistic as well, it's something that I'm proud of because Willow is amazing and I wouldn't have her any other way to be honest. It's definitely been a life-changer for me since she was born and for Erin. It's definitely opened up our eyes for the better. It's given us a whole new outlook on life. She's absolutely fantastic.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not as severe in certain aspects as Willow is," he explained when asked what specific traits he shared with his daughter. "It's just traits that Erin picked up on and I knew myself. Certain traits we found with Willow and Erin would say, 'Well you're like that as well'.
"It's something you're born with. Not something I've developed but I've been able to go through my whole life and be able to achieve and do what I've dreamed of. So I think that's the message.
"There's obviously a lot more severe cases than mine and a lot more people much higher up the spectrum than I am but that's the main message. It hasn't affected me achieving my dreams. It hasn't held me back.
"This won't affect me as a person because I've always been this person. It won't change my life in any way shape or form. I've managed to get through life pretty fine with this and now I've got the diagnosis it's going to be the same. If this helps raise awareness and helps people feel more comfortable about coming forward, the main message is you can still live a pretty normal life and it's nothing to be ashamed of."