On My Own!

‘I’m Rais­ing Six Autis­tic Chil­dren...’

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Front Page - ✤ For more in­for­ma­tion on autism, see autism.org.uk. ✤ Visit Vikie’s on­line sup­port group Autism One On One at face­book.com/ groups/778201832191740/

‘One minute I was com­pletely va­cant, the next I was hys­ter­i­cal’

When Vikie Shanks’ hus­band Paul threat­ened to kill him­self 10 years ago, she never imag­ined he would go through with it. Their mar­riage had al­ways been rocky and

Paul suf­fered from clin­i­cal de­pres­sion, but the idea of him leav­ing her alone to bring up their seven chil­dren was unimag­in­able – es­pe­cially as six of them have autism.

‘We’d al­ways ar­gued a lot, and Paul would get very an­gry and push me around,’ Vikie,

59, re­flects. ‘Look­ing back, the signs were there that he was men­tally ill, but I never be­lieved he’d com­mit sui­cide.’ His un­sta­ble mood swings made him prone to lash out at the whole fam­ily.

Trag­i­cally, their world fell apart in Septem­ber 2007. ‘Paul had made some aw­ful fi­nan­cial de­ci­sions, which had badly af­fected our joint events com­pany, so he was more de­pressed than ever.’

One morn­ing, two of their young daugh­ters were look­ing for Paul in the gar­den of the fam­ily home in Ke­nil­worth, War­wick­shire, when they found a 13-page sui­cide note in his car. When the po­lice ar­rived min­utes later, a tracker dog led of­fi­cers to a pond where his body was found.

Paul was dead, aged just 51, leav­ing Vikie and the seven chil­dren – Jamie, now 26, Ka­cie, 23, twins Lorie and Mirie, 22, Nikita, 20, Os­born, 18, and Pippa, 16 – ut­terly dev­as­tated. ‘We were in to­tal shock. The kids all took it very badly of course. Pippa, my youngest, was only six then, so it was es­pe­cially hard for her.’

The days af­ter Paul’s death were a blur. ‘We had a hand­ful of in­cred­i­ble peo­ple who helped us

– they brought bags of shop­ping, made us meals at night and cleaned the house. We wouldn’t have got through it with­out them.’

As the news slowly sank in, the chil­dren’s emo­tions about their fa­ther be­came very mixed.

‘On one hand they missed him ter­ri­bly and felt guilty that they should have done some­thing to stop him killing him­self. But, at the same time, they recog­nised that life was bet­ter with­out him around.’

Af­ter Paul’s death, Vikie faced the huge task of get­ting her fam­ily back on track. ‘I be­gan work­ing non­stop to cover the mort­gage and bills. I was run­ning events un­til 3am, then get­ting up at 6.30am for the school run,’ Vikie says. It’s no won­der that eight months later, she had a break­down. ‘One minute I was com­pletely va­cant, the next I was hys­ter­i­cal. My GP wanted me to be hos­pi­talised but I couldn’t leave the kids, so I went to bed and stayed there for six weeks.’

With so­cial work­ers help­ing with the school run and friends lend­ing a hand around the house, Vikie grad­u­ally re­cov­ered over the next five months. ‘Once I be­gan eat­ing prop­erly again, I started to feel more hu­man.’

As nor­mal­ity re­sumed, her daily rou­tine re­volved around med­i­cal ap­point­ments with the chil­dren. ‘In one week,

I counted 18 sep­a­rate meet­ings with doc­tors, phys­io­ther­a­pists, so­cial work­ers and oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists.’

Six of the chil­dren had shown autis­tic ten­den­cies from an early age, and though Ka­cie was the only one not af­fected, she was se­verely dyslexic. ‘They were chal­leng­ing from the be­gin­ning, but I as­sumed their tantrums were nor­mal.’

When they were very young, even sim­ple shop­ping trips were a bat­tle. ‘Nikita would sit be­hind me in the car and pull my seat­belt so tight it nearly stran­gled me. She’d also punch and kick me for hours. Os­born of­ten got so an­gry he’d smash up the house. But they weren’t be­ing naughty on pur­pose. Autism is an in­vol­un­tary re­ac­tion in the brain.’

As they grew older, their autism be­came eas­ier to han­dle. ‘They be­gan to see that it’s bet­ter just to walk away when­ever they feel an­gry.’

But home life was far from easy, and the older chil­dren all jug­gled part-time jobs with their school­ing to help with the bills.

‘What we went through forced them to grow up quickly, and also made them very en­ter­pris­ing. I’m so proud of them, be­cause los­ing their dad was the per­fect ex­cuse to go off the rails. In­stead, they all turned their lives around.’

With the six youngest still liv­ing at home, Vikie’s brood run a lo­cal child­care busi­ness that fits in around their stud­ies, while three of them also work in a restau­rant.

‘They con­trib­ute what they can fi­nan­cially and say it’s like liv­ing in a stu­dent house.

It’s where they all grew up, so they love it here. And they’re all very close, de­spite con­stantly ar­gu­ing!’

A cam­era crew has also been fol­low­ing the fam­ily for three years, with a doc­u­men­tary film called King­dom of Us pre­mier­ing at this year’s Bri­tish Film Fes­ti­val. ‘It’s go­ing to be a very honest look at what life is like for us.’

As for Vikie’s fu­ture plans, she says, ‘I know the kids will even­tu­ally fly the nest, so it’d be nice to have a new part­ner to share my life with.’ In the mean­time, she is fo­cus­ing on chang­ing men­tal-health per­cep­tions. ‘It’s my big­gest pas­sion,’ she smiles. Af­ter giv­ing a TED Talk de­bunk­ing autism myths and writ­ing a book called Un­rav­elled about her ex­pe­ri­ences, she also runs a lo­cal sup­port group. But Vikie be­lieves there is much more to do. ‘My fam­ily is liv­ing proof that autism is not a “dis­ease” or la­bel that de­fines a per­son. All I want to do is change pub­lic opin­ion and help make a dif­fer­ence to other peo­ple who are re­ally strug­gling. I’m only just get­ting started.’

‘All I want to do is change pub­lic opin­ion and help make a dif­fer­ence’

Vikie now feels pos­i­tive about the fu­ture

Vikie with her seven chil­dren, six of whom are on the autis­tic spec­trum Ka­cie Nikita Mirie Lorie

Paul and Vikie on their wed­ding day and (above) Paul with baby Os­born

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