‘Autism is a life sentence for those who committed no crime… Each person deserves to be treated with respect, and sometimes people need to be reminded about our autism and what it means’ writes Fiacre Ryan in his book Speechless: Reflections from my voiceless world.

And remind us he does.

Through the pages, he shares his thoughts on the non-autistic world, life with his family near Castlebar in Co Mayo, his daily experiences and where he finds contentment in everyday activities in the outdoors through a collection of short, visual poems and commentary.

Out of the blue

Having featured on RTÉ’S Autism and Me documentary in 2017, Fiacre and his family were approached to be part of another documentary in its wake, focusing on Fiacre’s story over a few years. Speechless the documentary gathered footage of Fiacre growing up over the course of eight years. After its release in March last year, Patrick O’Donoghue from Merrion Press ‘wrote to Fiacre out of the blue and asked him to write a book’ mum, Carmel Ryan tells Irish Country Living.

‘We were wondering how was this going to be done!’ adds Carmel. With gentle encouragement from Patrick and younger sister Alison who is studying at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin on-board to do the illustrations, the first published book to be authored by an Irish non-verbal autistic person was soon being dispatched to the printers.

Fiacre Ryan at the launch of his book.

Taking into account the fact that Fiacre had no means of communicating until he was 13, to now being a 21-year-old college student who already has their first published book ticked off life’s to-do list makes this achievement all the sweeter. Interviewing Fiacre over email, as well as speaking with mum Carmel over zoom from their home in Mayo Irish Country Living learnt of how Fiacre has given the world the opportunity to “see the world through our eyes, as we navigate the world through yours.”

Learning all along

Through the introduction of the ‘rapid prompting method’ (RPM), a tool designed to help autistic children communicate, Fiacre crushed all prior perceived limitations of somebody with non- verbal autism, as he writes ‘and show that I had been learning all along.” Carmel continues “It sounds as if it happened overnight. It was very much a slow process. He started writing on an alphabet letter board, pointing out letters and spelling out words, telling us what colour do you prefer and it took about four or five years to write a full piece.”

Carmel recalls the early days when the teacher asked Fiacre what his favourite season is “I thought it was summer because he loves being outside but when his teacher asked him, he said winter and the reason was because of the snow.”

Not only did the mastery of RPM have a transformative effect on Fiacre’s ability to demonstrate his learning, being able to communicate with family and his support network freed him of having thoughts cooped up in his head for so long: “It was cloudy, terrible and dark inside my thoughts. It was very difficult to rest when thoughts were revolting my brain, gathering every day… Now I can marshal this kaleidoscope into formation, tumbling letters into words, and transfixing them on a screen” he shares.

Carmel attributes Fiacre’s vocabulary with reading to him as a youngster and he himself being a great reader of audio books.

Nowadays, Fiacre tells us, “I like to write little and often, starting a piece and then thinking about it before starting again. It takes a long time for me to write a full piece. That’s probably why I like writing poetry, with condensed words and thoughts in short sharp sentences, a message in each line. I write best in a quiet room, as I am easily distracted and have sensory issues to contend with due to my autism. I find deadlines difficult. I live in a busy house, and sometimes I think everyone troops in and out to make endless cups of tea when I have an assignment to do!”

This busy house refers to special education teacher mum, Carmel and Dad, Pat originally from Clara, Co Kilkenny. Along with older sister Rebekah, younger sister Alison and not forgetting Poppy the dog. Fiacre writes about the support he has experienced from his family in the book and sums it up as “our way is a super way.”

He credits Carmel with “helping me to do really hard things like learning how to express myself” and Pat gets what must be one of the nicest father compliments going: “the way my dad looks at me is really so powerful and gives me unusual confidence.”

This strength of this family unit was needed when tensions arose about Fiacre completing his education, by being afforded the same opportunity as all the other students: to sit exams. “The thought of having an education and then nothing at the end caused me such stress” he recounts. It was his parents who “strove to wear out all opposition to allow me to be understood, respected” and in 2019, Fiacre became the first non-verbal autistic student to sit the Leaving Certificate – securing honours in his results.

What nature means to me

While Pat may be beside Fiacre arguing his “autistic case” at meetings, Fiacre is by Pat’s side when working outdoors; strimming, weeding, feeding horses, chopping and carrying wood. “Tears never darken my door when I am outside” he says in ‘What Nature Means to Me.’ It is not just the functional work that absorbs Fiacre but the beauty of life surrounding him, as he writes “every note of birdsong soothing my spirit.”

In ‘My Horse Charlie’, Fiacre describes the freedom and peace riders will recognise when being out with their own horses. The reception Charlie has as they approach the paddock “a horse sees everyone the same” brings a sense of meaningful inclusion without needing to speak any words.

As Carmel has observed over the years “He loves nature, even as a baby being outside walking the dogs, being at the beach; its where he? gets his comfort and where he is happiest” something many a reader of this publication could relate to.

Fiacre with his sister Alison, mum Carmel, Rebekah and dad Pat at his book launch in The Castle bookshop, Castle street, Castlebar, Co Mayo

As the world settles into this new year, Fiacre continues with his study of history and geography at Atlantic Technological University (ATU), Mayo. He rounded off 2022 with a Mayo Person of the Year award for his writing along with being nominated for best newcomer at the An Post Book Awards in Dublin. He writes in the introduction of his book that “inclusion is like an elusive party; you can’t get in without an invitation” and it looks like this bright young star from the green and red of Mayo has decided there is only one thing to do; start your own party and invite the non-autistic world along!

  • Speechless: Reflections from my Voiceless World is available nationwide at €16.95
  • Family

    By Fiacre Ryan

    Family all together at last.

    Evening light descends on the dinner table,

    bathed in candle glow.

    Voices raised in laughter and story, a cauldron of fun.

    Honeymooners hand-fastened in love.

    Delicious smells wafting from the kitchen, the promise of a feast.

    Wine-clinking, a toast to our health and happiness.

    Chatter calms to a steady hum of appreciation, dinner is served.

    Sated after, I sit in a comfy couch.

    I listen to tales of foreign lands, drinking from the enthusiasm of youth.

    Here I am safe;

    Believed, accepted and understood.

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