My name is Darach Ó Maoláin, I am North Antrim GAA’s Public Relations Officer. I am Autistic. This isn’t my first time discussing my condition. Two years ago, when I was the PRO for Loughgiel Shamrocks GAC, I made the decision to publicly announce that I had been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder the previous year. I think one of the biggest challenges for me at that time was accepting that I wasn’t “normal.” I struggled to accept who I am, and if I’m honest, I still do.
I remember walking home from the shop and a car pulled up beside me. It was Fr Sean Connolly, a Loughgiel legend in his own right. He offered me a lift back to my house. Once I got into the car, he turned to me and said, “I read your piece in The Irish News. That’ll help someone out there who is in the same position as you.” I have been very vocal about being Autistic, I’d say I’ve talked enough that folk are “clean scunnered” listening to me. The reason for this is that I know how difficult it can be to live on the fringes of typical society, to struggle to manage the crowds and noises, especially at hurling matches. As I matured, I developed coping mechanisms, but occasionally there still can be challenges.
If you’re unaware of what Autistic Spectrum Disorder is, then don’t worry. I was like that once. When I received a letter at the age of 21 telling me that I was being assessed for ASD, I had no idea what it was either. Then I found out that I’ve been Autistic my entire life. Imagine that! ASD is a disability (well, some days I think it’s an ability) which affects how the brain develops. There’s no concrete reason as to why this happens, it could be genetic or environmental. Essentially, our brains are connected differently to neurotypical people. Autistic people struggle with social interaction and may have repetitive behaviours. I struggle with crowds and loud noises. I think my love for administrative work comes from my comfort in repetitive behaviour. Unfortunately, there are often mental health complications. Too much stress can result in what is called a Meltdown, where it can be too difficult to manage emotional stimulation. We also have very special interests. Before you even think to ask: no, I’m not Rain Man.
Since my days as Loughgiel’s PRO, my goal has been to bring greater awareness and acceptance of Autism within the GAA. This plan continued to develop when I became North Antrim’s PRO. I must extend my gratitude to my colleagues in the NA Executive, most notably Martin Magee and Chris Campbell for being very supportive of me in the past few months. As part of this plan, I will run 85km over the month of September for Autism NI, a charity that I have volunteered for over the past few years. This fundraiser was launched in Cushendall on the 24th August with the goal of raising £650, and thankfully that goal is within our grasp. I’d like to give my heartfelt thanks to the Executive who donated £200 towards this cause and to the many people who have also offered their support.
The reality is that the GAA faces a great opportunity to address how we can support people with disabilities, not just ASD. With a broad cultural livelihood, the GAA offers a place of belonging to many, irrespective of ability, creed or background. Autistic people deserve to find a place where they feel comfortable and valued for their skills and accepted despite their differences and receive the support when needed. I am glad to say that I feel at home in North Antrim.
Darach Ó Maoláin
Public Relations Officer