After her husband took his own life, Vikie Shanks was left to raise seven children – all with special needs – on her own. She tells us about their unbreakable family bond, and how she has coped with no support from extended family…
As a mother of seven children (now young adults), the question I get asked the most is: “What’s it like?”. The most appropriate question would be “What’s it like to have seven children with special needs?”.
The answer, put simply, is that you suddenly discover that you have acquired a magical laundry basket that refills faster than you can empty it, the saucepans you cook in grow to the size of witches’ cauldrons, and, at times, the decibel level resembles a Black Sabbath concert. Yes, a large family makes for an interesting life.
Do I have any regrets? Absolutely not. My children are the most amazingly wonderful things to ever happen to me (and my life before children was anything but boring and mundane).
Having seven children was always going to be a challenge. Six of them being at various points on the autistic spectrum – and the seventh having severe dyslexia – was going to make it even more interesting. But add to that the fact the two youngest have cerebral palsy alongside their autism. I was under no illusion that this was going to be a smooth ride.
Ultimately, the suicide of their father nine years ago meant that I was going to have to manage everything myself. People constantly ask me how I did it. Having 18 appointments in one week (and a weekly average of 12/13) with various professionals meant it was a logistical nightmare – there was only one of me, and I was still running our corporate entertainment business.
So how DID I do it? The honest answer is this: pig ignorant determination and an overwhelming feeling that I could never give up on my children. They’d been through enough already.
Several times I had to fight off Social Services wanting to put some of them into care. I had to fight tooth and nail to get Statements for the three youngest (with no support from their school) and the constant physio, OT, Orthotics and operations for the younger two meant that I had no time to think about how to do it; I just did it.
I developed a strategy of not looking at my diary until the night before, and only perused the following day. Looking further ahead would have been too daunting. I would carefully work out the logistics of which child had to be where at what time and how I was going to make it on time to every appointment. I had no back-up, no family, very few close friends (and the ones I did have I tried not to ask so that they would be there in an absolute emergency, having not worn them down) so it really was just me, and me alone.
But we got through. We’re still here, very close and my children are happily following their dreams. And I’m still here too; writing, speaking and campaigning for better understanding and acceptance for people with ‘differently wired brains’ and mental health challenges.
I love what I do and we work together as a family. As some of us are more vulnerable than others, we work it so that there is someone around to be with them at all times, and if no one else is present, I work my life around the circumstances.
Has the journey been hard? You bet. Has it been worth every millisecond? No question. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. My children are kind, considerate, caring and the unbreakable bond we have is priceless. I once used the analogy of pencils with them to illustrate how powerful sticking together is. I got one pencil and broke it in half, easy, then I got eight pencils and held them all together, they were impossible for me to break.
Family is the same. Build a strong bond between everyone, no matter how many of you there are – and then stay strong together, and you’re much harder to break.
We’re living proof of that.
You can buy Unravelled – a book by Vikie Shanks; follow the autism support group she started and runs on Facebook; or email her: email@example.com – if you’d like to talk to her about autism, mental health or family life.