10 June 2016

Jakki Barber Hall is mum to two sets of twins, including one son with autism.

Joel and his brother

It took over three years of trying and one lot of IVF to get my oldest boys, Joel and Harvey. I was over the moon to hear from the clinic that I was pregnant, and ecstatic to find out it was twins. I took no risks: no alcohol, no funny foods, I even had a special seatbelt. I was determined to do everything in my power to bring two healthy beings into the world.

Autism was in the newspapers at the time and I remember being concerned because it’s more common in males.

But both boys seemed spot on in their development, smiling at us and making eye contact.

My first concern was when Joel started to head bang at around a year old, hitting his forehead on the floor or any nearby furniture. Harvey seemed more switched on - but they were different characters and I put it down to personality. As time went on, Joel seemed rather in his own world, but he still responded to us and was happy and endearing. The boys both started speaking and Joel was walking not long after Harvey.

It wasn’t until the two-year check that anyone suggested things were awry. The health visitor was concerned that Joel didn’t stop running round the room or respond to instructions. She referred him to a paediatrician - which angered me at the time: Joel was just being Joel!

At nursery there were further problems. Joel wouldn’t engage in activities or play with other children. At one stage he became fixated with a little girl and would follow her around or watch her sleep. When she wanted to play with other children he would push her or throw things.

It was when Joel started school that my eyes were opened. The other 29 children in the class would take off their coats, sit on the carpet, put up their hands to answer a question; Joel could handle none of this. He was disruptive and needed a lot of guidance and reassurance. Thankfully the school were supportive and due to the excellent special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco), he had a statement by year one.

After a nine-month wait to see a paediatrician, the ball started rolling. Unfortunately, she ‘didn’t want to label him’ and would not give a diagnosis. The school recommended we get a second opinion and at the age of five, Joel was diagnosed with autism and ADHD.

Denial was no longer an option - but actually it was a relief to know what we were dealing with.

Joel wasn’t a naughty, disruptive boy; he had a condition and it wasn’t his fault.

In all this time, Harvey continued to grow and develop. It was a comfort that there were no phone calls from school showing concern or informing me of ‘an incident’; there were no comments at parents’ evening that felt like a kick in the stomach. He was just a regular little boy.

The boys being twins did make things harder in some ways, with the implied comparison. Harvey does well at school, he’s popular and converses well. Joel struggles, he finds things hard to understand, he doesn’t have as many friends. I don’t think he is as aware of this as we are, and we can be grateful for that.

It takes patience to deal with Joel’s repetitive questions and impulsive behaviour, and Harvey sometimes deals with it by zoning out. At one time he found Joel’s behaviour embarrassing, but that has faded. There is a sense of protectiveness from both sides since they started secondary school. Thankfully they share a love of trampolining, football, wrestling and playing games on their PlayStation. When only one of them is home they are eager to know when the other will return.

For now, Joel is coping in a mainstream school with a good learning support unit, but we don’t know what his future holds. We have no idea if he will get GCSEs or find a job. All we can do is provide him with a loving, supportive environment and encourage him to be as self-sufficient as possible so he has confidence in himself.

Added to the mix now are my other set of twins: five-year-old Jacob and Lucas. Tragically, my first husband died when my older boys were just seven months old. When I met my second husband, Simon, a few years later and we decided to try for a baby, I thought I would need IVF again. I visited the clinic, picked up my drugs and waited for my period… It never came.

I was amazed when I got pregnant naturally and even more amazed to find out it was twins again.

We were worried how we would cope, but taking on an au pair helped, as did the age gap. Thankfully neither of the younger two has autism, which was a huge concern. Joel struggles with how to play appropriately with Jacob and Lucas at times, but he is extremely fond of them.

It’s a lovely mix having non-identical and identical twins. The younger two have a fantastic bond but it’s interesting to see that the older two look out for each other as well - when they’re not driving each other crazy!