On My Own!
‘I’m Raising Six Autistic Children...’
‘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
Paul and Vikie on their wedding day and (above) Paul with baby Osborn