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Image / Editorial

What Happens When A Comedian Has Two Daughters With Autism

by Sophie White
15th Nov 2017

Award-winning comedian-turned- author, Aidan Comerford tells Sophie White how letting go of one lifelong dream helped him realise what he really wanted for his future

Running late to meet Aidan Comerford is a really stressful, stressful thing. Not only because his life sounds insane, off-the-charts in the busy scale, but also because he states that he believes lateness to be a form of hate crime on page 29 of his just-released book Cornflakes For Dinner. So it’s intense. I decide the crime of sweatiness has got to rate lower on his meter than lateness and opt for that instead of keeping him.

You see, the facts of Comerford’s life are such that one would imagine trivialities like the lateness of sweaty journalist might really piss him off. His two daughters were diagnosed with autism in their toddler years, his wife Martha has a rare sleep disorder to manage and Comerford has had a major task keeping sanity and household together through some difficult years of redundancy from his day job (as a structural draughtsman), considerable mortgage arrears and grave disappointments. The book’s tagline is ‘a heartbreaking comedy about family life’ and it is a testament to Comerford’s talent and affability that by the end of chapter one, I had already cried and laughed out loud. A lot.

Comerford has always been ambitious, though his goals lay somewhat left of field for a young guy in his 20s:

“I was a singer-songwriter for years, bare feet on stage and everything. Terrible, terrible, it gives me cringe when I think of it now. I gave that up after Ailbhe was born and that was fine. One of my major dreams was to be a family man, I wanted to be the dad with the kids.”

After ditching the Damian Rice vibes and presumably putting his shoes back on,  Comerford moved on to writing musical comedy and gradually began gigging, “it became a bit like a part time job.”

“I had a funny song in my show called ‘I write songs cuz I wanna get laid’ which is not entirely true because I actually wrote songs because I wanted to get married. I just wanted to get a woman naked so I could marry the sh*t out of her. I always had that thing of ‘I want to get married as soon as possible and have kids as soon as possible’.”

He met Martha shortly after the breakup of a long relationship and knew immediately that she was the woman he would marry.

“We’ve been together ever since, as Marthas says ‘nothing ever went wrong’, she never suddenly said ‘I don’t like the Princess Bride or something,” Comerford peals off into laughter at what is evidently his personal deal-breaker.

Sadly the ‘nothing ever went wrong’ streak was to be seriously challenged when the couple who were planning to have four kids, found themselves facing straight into fertility struggles just after their wedding. Comerford sets the tone of his darkly funny, fantastically real book in the opening chapter which hilariously details his struggles to produce and transport a sample for the couple’s fertility tests. To say Comerford and his wife find humour in everything is an understatement, there is barely a page of the book I didn’t laugh at.

Humour is a well-known coping mechanism but one can’t help but feel there is something very special about this family, that they have stayed so unified through all the ups and downs of the last decade and beyond that are still laughing together. After a year of issues, the couple conceived and had their first Daughter Ailbhe in 2006, with Sophie following 18 months later.

“Sophie was around one when the word ‘autism’ first came into the house,” Comerford says. Ailbhe showed the first signs that something was unusual when the couple noticed that she would repeat dialogue from films. This repetition (called echolalia) is a thing that most children do when learning to speak, but they noticed Ailbhe would do it in order to cope with stress. It was a speech therapist friend of the family who alerted them to the quirk and suggested that Ailbhe was not understanding much of what was being said to her.

“This was news to us, she was two and a half at the time and she had spoken her first word at seven months which is incredibly early. We were like ‘we’re nailing this parenting!’ She continued along saying single words, she didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘mama’ or ‘dada’, she had no way of putting together sentences… she also had touch sensitivity, if you tried to touch the top of her head, she’d bark like a dog. You can imagine, it made washing her hair really fun!”

The couple opted for early intervention for their daughters and the diagnosis was devastating. As Comerford put it at the end of his award-winning comedy show in 2014, “Ailbhe is mildly autistic and Sophie is wildly autistic”.

“It’s like living in a world where everyone speaks another language and Sophie didn’t speak for years. Not until she was about four or five, when she started saying lots of little words or bits of sentences which is where she is now at 10 years old. She can speak her needs but you can’t really have a conversation with her.” Sophie, the Comerford’s younger daughter has a more profound form of autism. “There’s a lot of unknowns in it, no one can really tell what she’s going to be like when she’s sixteen, she may never develop conversational language. This might be her plateau. She’s a lovely happy, healthy kid,  very self contained to a certain extent. She doesn’t like when things don’t go to plan and she could have an hour or two-hour long tantrum about small things.” Sophie goes to St Michael’s in Trim, a dedicated centre for children on the autistic spectrum.

With some additional help and social therapy, Ailbhe has thrived in a mainstream school and enjoys English. Comerford is clearly proud when talking about her love of word play and puns.

“One of the myths about autistic kids is that they’re good at maths… only about four or five percent of the people with autism have savant abilities, but because it’s what you see in movies…” he scoffs. “People say to me ‘what’s her special powers?’, I say ‘She can shoot lasers out her eyes, it’s unbelievable.'”

Comerford’s relationships with his daughters is absolutely gorgeous, he seems to have vast reserves of patience which even parents of nuero-typical children struggle to access, and more than admirable patience. He clearly has fun with his girls.

“I brought Ailbhe as a treat to the late showing of Dr. Strange when it came out, and I had to explain that we could not talk through this movie and the second it came on she immediately said (he roars): ‘I can’t believe it, they never said Sherlock was in this!’ at that volume,” Comerford laughs, shaking his head. “I was like ‘remember the no talking thing? That was it!'”

“I had to try and explain the whole concept of actors to her because another time she saw Martin Freeman in The Avengers and was like ‘What is Dr. Watson doing in The Avengers?'” Comerford had the idea to set her a project on Benedict Cumberbatch to help her understand, a mark of his dedication to being a good father.

Comerford’s portrait of his wife, Martha, is one of the most endearing things in the book. She’s like the supporting actor who steals every scene, basically Bill Murray in Tootsie. She’s razor sharp and utterly hilarious. At my suggestion that she should be the one writing a book, Comerford bursts out laughing, telling me that that came up and her response was characteristically harsh and funny as hell: “I just don’t need the constant affirmation that you need, Aidan!”

Recently Ricky Gervais retweeted a piece of Comerford’s writing, “I went into Martha in bed, saying ‘Ricky Gervais is after retweeting my story,’ to which she responded ‘oh god, there was already no living with you.'” Comerford laughs.

Martha was the first person to read the book which was nervewrecking. “When I was still doing musical comedy, I’d play her a song and if she didn’t laugh, that was it even if I’d spent a week on it, I wouldn’t play it (on stage),” says Comerford.

“Don’t lie and don’t hold back” was her generous advice when Comerford embarked on the book about their life together.

“We’ve always been a good team, but it’s like extreme parenting and it has tested us,” which Comerford writes quite frankly about in the book. He assures me he didn’t put every row in there, though he does include Martha’s struggles with depression and a crippling sleep disorder (idiopathic hypersomnia) meaning she has to sleep far more than the average person which sounds good until you really consider how limiting and frustrating it must be to have exponentially less time than everyone else in which to live your life.

Comerford is forthcoming on Martha’s behalf but it was all with her blessing, she even joined him for a radio interview with Ray D’Arcy and “was, of course, funnier than me,” Comerford mock-complains. Martha goes to counselling to manage her illness and as Comerford says “that’s her outlet for the stress” while after the children were born, performing musical comedy became his.

People had started to take notice of Comerford’s gigs which led him to bring his comedy show to Edinburgh in 2014 where he won the coveted So You Think You’re Funny award.

As Comerford was performing, unbeknownst to him back home, traumatic events were unfolding. Sophie, then seven, had gone missing near a lake for several hours. Thankfully she was unharmed but the incident served to highlight the constant push/pull that Comerford’s comedy career would bring to the already stretched young family should he pursue it.

“Coming home on the flight, I was thinking ‘this could be something I could do, I can’t waste this,’ I was trying to work out how I could make that work. Then, when I got back and I found out Sophie had gone missing, all that went away. I felt guilty, like if I was there that wouldn’t have happened and Martha said ‘I feel guilty as well because I feel if you were here, it wouldn’t have happened.'”

At this time, the couple were in mortgage arrears which the prize money thankfully made a dent in, and then Comerford began to get more and more paid gigs in Ireland.

Comerford had worked a section into the end of his Edinburgh show about his daughters and autism and he now planned to write a full show on this subject for the next year.

“I had just gotten the job I’m in now, we were doing much better financially and out of our mortgage arrears and we didn’t need the money any more which had always been one of my excuses to do it. So then I had to ask myself ‘what am I doing this for?’ I don’t need the emotional crutch anymore. If I wanted to do it fulltime I’d have to really throw myself into it and did I really want that?”

“The end of the book is the big argument we have about it, she said ‘what do you want? It feels like if you keep going then family will become your second priority.’ I never wanted that. I thought about it for a few days and then said I’d give it up and see what I feel like and I gave it up that Christmas and I didn’t miss it at all. I did it and I did almost everything I wanted to do. Travelling and being away from the family is not what I wanted to do.”

Comerford has a restless mind though and soon began scouting for a different creative outlet. Cornflakes For Dinner came about after an editor at Gill publishers read a post he shared on the Facebook forum, Oh My God What A Complete Aisling.

“We met over a pint and she said ‘I think you should write a book’, so that’s what happened.”

Cornflakes For Dinner by Aidan Comerford is available in all good bookshops and online.

If you would like to watch his full Edinburgh set (and I highly recommend you do) click here.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

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