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How disco helped my autistic son

Autism left Jimmy Hobley unable to read, write or make much sense of the world. Then his mum came across dancing classes for children.

health and fitness Updated: Apr 09, 2010 20:17 IST

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.

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. 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. The experts said the chances were minimal — she was told there was a one 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. “They both had terrible screaming fits, and they were biters,” Sheila says. It got worse. Sheila and Andy couldn’t go out socially together. They both think it’s a considerable achievement that they’ve stayed together for 11 years.

By the age of three, George was hiding scissors and kitchen knives under his bed. He’d tell his parents they were to kill Jimmy with. She couldn’t cope, and started to take anti depressants. “They ripped books up, destroyed toys, wrecked everything,” she adds.

However aggressive George was, there was an equally tender side. She was desperate to find something to occupy the twins. And that’s where the dancing came in.The front door opens, two high-pitched voices are squealing and it feels as if we’ve been hit by a tornado. The boys are home from their special school.

Right moves
Sheila says strangers assume Jimmy was a natural on the dance floor: “When he started, he was wobbly. He couldn’t even link three moves together.” But soon he shone with his extraordinary high kicks and gyrating hips.

He began to win local talent shows. Then regional talent shows. And before long he had reached the finals of the national Disco Kid championships. He became a little bit famous, and a TV film about him and the family was commissioned.

The documentary, made by Liz Bloor, is funny, desperate, and often moving. The great thing is that his dancing has helped him in many ways – it taught him how to socialise and how to deal with success and failure. In short, his brain’s wiring, which had been so horribly twisted in his early years, started to straighten itself out.

Learning soon
I ask Jimmy how he thinks the dancing has changed him. First, he lifts his top to show off his six-pack. Sheila says it’s benefited Jimmy 100 per cent, but there’s been a price to pay for the family. Dancing lessons are expensive, especially with neither Sheila nor Andy working, and she admits the other boys have probably not had their share of the attention.

The boys are eloquent about their problems, particularly George. “Autism means you have learning difficulties,” he says. “You have trouble knowing stuff that mainstream kids pick up easy. My behavioural problems are I just can’t keep my emotions in, I’ve got to let them out.

And I’m working on that with my dad.” There is also a positive side, he says. It might have taken him ages to learn, but now he’s a brilliant reader. “I’ve got hyperlexia, which means I can read a lot — words that I’ve not even heard before. I can read words upside down and backwards. It’s basically the opposite of dyslexia.”

“Do you wish you had something like Jim had?” Sheila asks him gently.
“Yes, but not dancing. I’d rather be a whiz at something creative. Jim always boasts about his dancing and sometimes that really annoys me because I wish I could find something… Mam says I could maybe do rugby because I’ve got that kind of build.”

Living away
Anyway, George says, things will change soon if Jimmy gets into ballet school in Birmingham. Then they will lead separate lives. As Jimmy shows me some of his moves, George drops a bombshell. “I suppose I’d secretly miss him,” he mutters. “It would be pretty odd because I’ve lived my whole life with Jim so far, but if that’s what he wants to do…” And then the tears come.