Haley and Hannah are pretty behind their designer eyeglasses and apparent shyness. Haley is a bit taller and Hannah’s hair is slightly darker, but they both have the same perfect skin, which is a big deal for most teenage girls.
The sisters are 17 years old. They love their dog, enjoy baking and are both gifted artists.
But sometimes showing emotion comes hard for Jeff and Rachel Ireland’s twin girls. Sometimes they simply cannot look strangers in the eyes. Sometimes they find it impossible to smile. Sometimes they refuse to talk. Sometimes they don’t want to hug or show love to anyone — not even their parents.
Haley and Hannah Ireland, the first-born daughters of Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, have been diagnosed with autism.
“Autism when we had our children years ago affected one in 175 kids,” Ireland said as he and his wife Rachel talked for more than an hour about the disease that has attacked their family. “Now it’s one in 88 kids. It’s an epidemic. It’s growing faster than any other epidemic.”
The Center for Disease Control confirms Ireland’s statistics. It calls autism a developmental disorder. Whatever it is, disease or disorder, it has been cruel to the Irelands.
How else to describe when healthy twin girls are happy and developmentally sound one day but seemingly become someone else days later?
“About age 2 they had an immunization shot that triggered their autism,” Rachel said as she participated in the recent Dan Marino Foundation Walkabout for Autism. “And not that we think immunizations cause it. I want to make that clear. We believe and have found out they are predisposed because of a chromosome inversion. But it was overnight.”
Said Ireland: “I came home from a scouting trip and the next morning, I picked them up and they stiffened up like rock. I used to toss them in the air and they’d laugh, but this was different. I said, ‘What happened to these wonderfully developing children?’ ”
Rachel, listening to her husband, added glumly, “We lost them.”
The Irelands at first weren’t certain what the sudden change meant. But they knew something was terribly wrong when they went to an outdoor restaurant with a band and the girls started screaming and trying to crawl under the table.
“It was overwhelming, but we were kind of in denial because autism wasn’t so prevalent,” Rachel said. “It wasn’t so easy to diagnose. The doctors kept denying it.”
The twins hated socks and shoes. They hated sounds that most children typically love to make. Going to see Fourth of July fireworks meant staying in the car with the windows rolled up so the sounds wouldn’t alarm them.
It was one gut punch after another, and sometimes those came from people who were helping the Irelands. One doctor suggested the girls would never talk and should be institutionalized. One teacher suggested the girls get trained in sign language because she thought they were mute.
“We learned to navigate through but at the same time didn’t want to shelter them so much,” Rachel said. “They are highly functioning. But they have a lot of anxiety about their disorder. They tell me they like little kids and animals better because they feel they’re not judging them. When they get around older kids or people, they’re like, ‘What do they think about me? Do they think I’m weird?’ And that’s heartbreaking, but we look at it as a good thing because lower-functioning kids don’t know about any of that and don’t care.