How disco helped my autistic son
Autism left Jimmy Hobley unable to read, write or make much sense of the world. But then his mum, Sheila, came across dancing classes for children
Before Jimmy Hobley discovered disco, he was desperate. He couldn't read, couldn't write, couldn't make head or tail of the world. Then he began dancing. Jimmy is one of Sheila Hobley's three boys, all of them autistic. It would be nice to be able to say that once he learned to swing those hips, the family never looked back, but the world is rarely as simple as that.
The family home is eerily calm as his parents talk about the havoc their children have wreaked upon it. Alex is 16, and the twins, George and Jimmy, are 10. When Alex was born, Sheila's life was turned upside down. She was 26, didn't know anything about autism, and was expected to bring up a boy who bit and scratched and tore his hair out, who had epilepsy, who found everything hard to learn, and had a number of obsessive compulsive disorders. It wasn't easy, and Sheila and Alex's father split up.
A while later, she got together with Andy. They both wanted children, and Sheila didn't want to worry Andy by suggesting they might be autistic, too. Anyway, the experts said the chances were minimal – she was told there was a 1 in 1,000 chance of having another autistic child, figures that have nowadays been revised to between one in 80 and one in 100.
But, sure enough, the twins were autistic. Like Alex, they were born early, were dramatically underweight, and didn't meet any of their developmental goals. The one thing they were good at was fighting. "They both had terrible screaming fits, and they were biters," Sheila says. "And when you left, they'd just hold on to your leg like a dog mating, and you'd be trying to walk away and they'd be on it with their teeth, biting through your jeans. They didn't sleep. Absolutely exhausted, we were."
It got worse. "Even my childminder said she'd seen nothing like it. They were three to four months old, rolling around on the floor, holding on to each other's hair, screaming." Soon it was impossible to get childminders, and Sheila and Andy couldn't go out socially together. How did it affect their relationship? "We've had rocky times," Sheila says. "It made our relationship quite volatile at times, because the whole family setup was." They both think it's a considerable achievement that they've stayed together for 11 years.
When Sheila told doctors that she was convinced the twins were also autistic, they told her she was an over-anxious mum. But soon they were forced to admit they had been wrong.