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.
“So in many ways, we’re blessed.”
The Irelands are blessed that one attack that defeats so many couples with autistic children did not overcome them. “Jeff and I, luckily we stuck together,” Rachel said. “So many of our friends that we know that had this happen to them, it tore them apart.”
But the Ireland marriage was forged in tough times, so it has stubbornly survived. The couple married 20 years ago. One month after their first meeting, Rachel was in an automobile accident in which she shattered her pelvis and collarbone. She wore a catheter for six weeks and her bladder nearly exploded.
“I was in a wheelchair when he proposed to me, so our life started out with some drama,” Rachel said. “It was three months after we met. He said, ‘I’ve been taking care of you so far, and I want to do it for the rest of my life.’ I was like, wow, if he can deal with all this, he’s a good one.”
Ireland soon landed a job scouting for the National Football League Scouting Combine in 1994. The twins came along unexpectedly, Rachel admitted, two years later.
“It was wonderful,” Rachel said. “Being a new momma is great. He’s a natural at parenting. Even though he’s gone a lot, he’d be home three quality days a week and we’d have summers off together. We’d have lots of picnics in the park and feeding the ducks, and then the autism happened.”
The autism affects practically everything. When Ireland was a candidate to leave the Dallas Cowboys and become the Dolphins’ general manager in 2008, it was a chance of lifetime. But for Rachel, it was a crisis.
The twins were in public school in Texas, where they enjoyed the benefits of an “individualized education plan.” That meant a specialist was on hand to help the girls if they struggled or acted out. Haley and Hannah were thriving.
“We had everything set, it was perfect, and then I said, ‘Um, honey, we’re leaving.’ ” Ireland said.
After Ireland was hired, then-Dolphins-owner Wayne Huizenga and his wife Marti took him and Rachel to dinner to get to know them.
“Marti asked me ‘what do you think about the prospect of coming to South Florida,’ and I just about broke down in tears,” Rachel said. “I had a network of support in Texas. I had it just about figured out.”
Marti Huizenga connected the Irelands with the Dan Marino Foundation that is closely associated with the Autism Societies of Miami-Dade and Broward and the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.
But the transition to South Florida was not easy.
“When we came to Florida, we struggled to find the right schools,” Rachel said. “We went through three schools in one year.”
That struggle continues. But it’s not the greatest challenge. Not even close.
“With us, it’s no longer about the girls becoming a doctor or a lawyer or even graduate from college,” Ireland said. “It’s about being able to have normal communication and try to find a skill, and if you need something, being able to ask somebody to help.”
The Irelands also have an 11-year-old boy, Riley, and 6-year-old girl, Annie, and they have no developmental challenges. But when the couple thinks of their future many years from now, their thoughts turn to the twins.
“They love ice cream. They love baking. They can bake cakes and cookies and decorate,” Rachel said. “I envision someday it’ll be Ireland’s ice cream shop and bakery.
“We’ll have a family business and they will be very involved and will be a part of it. They’re not going to sit at home. They’re going to be active and contributing individuals in our society.”