Her husband committed suicide leaving debts of £1m, yet she raised seven children - six autistic, two with cerebral palsy. And she's still smiling.
Vikie Shanks has raised her seven children alone in rural Warwickshire
Six of her children have autism, two cerebral palsy and another dyslexia
Her husband Paul committed suicide in 2007 leaving substantial debts
But against all odds, the whole family are leading happy, healthy lives
'I've got a lot of grit. I'm not the sort of person to be beaten,' she says
For Vikie Shanks it was just a typical family teatime. In the garden, her daughter Lorie was crying hysterically. She’d been trying for an hour to score 20 consecutive netball goals.
Her quest was obsessive, her focus intense. She’d managed 15, but she hadn’t yet achieved her target.
And now Vikie was telling her to come in and eat. But Lorie wouldn’t — actually she couldn’t — abandon her mission, because it wasn’t just a game: it was a compulsion.
Meanwhile, inside the house, Nikita — who was then nine years old — seemed possessed of a manic energy. She was twirling around, her arms flailing like a windmill.
Vikie tried to calm her, but Nikita was implacable. She lashed out, hitting and kicking her mother.
On the sofa, Jamie, Vikie’s eldest child, tried to adjudicate in a dispute with two of the younger ones about what they should watch on TV. The squabble had reached a dizzying crescendo.
Vikie took a deep breath, gathered herself and returned to the kitchen. That’s when the drama over the pasta sauce kicked off. ‘I was stirring the tomato sauce when my son Osborn came in,’ says Vikie, 56, a widow.
‘He was absolutely stricken and crying uncontrollably. “You’ve got the wrong sauce, Mum,” he screamed, and I realised I hadn’t bought the usual brand — the one I’d used for years — but a different one that had been on special offer.
‘And Osborn — who is factual, rigid and likes life to be ordered and predictable — was distraught. He couldn’t cope with the change in routine.
‘I remember feeling exhausted, completely wrung-out. I felt like running into the middle of the field behind our house, throwing my arms in the air and screaming.
‘But there was only me, so I just had to soldier on. When there’s no one else to field a ball to, there isn’t an alternative.
‘Everyone says “You must be strong”, and I think I probably am quite tough mentally. I’ve got a lot of grit. I’m not the sort of person to be beaten.
‘I try to deal with life by focusing on solutions rather than problems. And, of course, a bit of laughter helps as well.’
Indeed, Vikie has often had to summon up every vestige of her strength, humour and resolve to deal with the many curve balls life has thrown at her.
Six of Vikie's children have autism and two cerebral palsy. Kacie, third from left, is severely dyslexic. However, the former model has instilled in her children that life's problems are there to be surmounted
In 2007, her husband, Paul, committed suicide, and since then she has been lone parent to her seven adored, but demanding children: six daughters — Jamie, now 23, Kacie, 20, 19-year-old twins Lorie and Mirie, Nikita, 17, Pippa, 13 — and only son Osborn, 15, all of whom live with their mother in a ramshackle house set in 13 acres of rural Warwickshire.
Motherhood on such an epic scale is challenge enough, but Vikie’s parenting task is gargantuan, for six of her seven offspring have autism.
Two also have cerebral palsy, while Kacie — the only one not affected by autism — is severely dyslexic.
'Everyone says “You must be strong”, and I think I probably am quite tough mentally.'
You might imagine that Vikie, a former model, would be crushed by the weight of her responsibilities, but, in fact, she is resourceful and cheerful and presides over her chaotic household with remarkable serenity.
Her children, too, have been instilled with her maxim that life’s problems are there to be surmounted.
Each one of them has learned to circumvent, or deal with, the difficulties their autism has presented them with. All are leading happy, productive lives.
Nikita, Lorie, Osborn and Pippa were diagnosed as autistic when they were four. Osborn and Pippa also have cerebral palsy, which has affected their balance, ability to walk and manual skills.
Jamie and Mirie have milder symptoms of autism, but psychologists have confirmed that they are on the spectrum.
Nikita had the most intractable behavioural problems, with violent meltdowns — but the 17-year-old has graduated from special school to a mainstream college, where she is studying drama.
Vikie is delighted by her transformation. ‘There were times when Nikita’s behaviour was quite horrific,’ she says.
‘She’d trash the house, and thump and slap me. I was covered in bruises. She was so full of anger; like a little wild animal.
The siblings pictured in 2004. The mother says each of her children has learned to circumvent, or deal with, the difficulties their autism has presented them with - and are all leading happy, productive lives
‘She found it hard to verbalise why she was so frustrated and angry, but it was because I couldn’t read her mind. It was heartbreaking.’ The violent outbursts diminished as Nikita’s self-awareness grew with age and she learned how to develop strategies for coping.
Three of Vikie’s children — Jamie, who has had a role in an independent feature film, Lorie, working for a season as a Red Coat at Butlin’s in Somerset, and Mirie, who has qualified as a drama teacher — have fledgling careers in performing arts. Now Nikita is hoping to follow their lead.
Vikie believes autistic children have a natural capacity to act.
‘They’re perpetually acting out different roles in order to fit in,’ she says. ‘While the rest of us know intuitively how to behave in polite society, autistic people have to learn that skill.’
Indeed, Vikie remembers having to explain the nuances of etiquette in painstaking detail to Lorie about a decade ago.
‘We were at a fete and she’d won a big inflatable hammer. She was larking around, hitting her sisters on the head with it, and they were laughing. Then she hit me and I laughed, too. But when she went over and hit the elderly gentleman running the swing boats, he was less obliging.
‘He said sharply to me: “I suggest you teach your child to observe boundaries.” So I had to explain to Lorie very carefully which people in her life it would be all right to hit in a playful way.
‘Her teacher? No. My best friend? Yes. She could not grasp that what would be fun in some contexts, would be considered rudeness in others.’
Vikie's husband Paul, pictured, took his own life in 2007 aged 51. He was severely depressed, the mother says, and had various mental health issues
All the children have obviously taken on board their mother’s lessons; when I visit their home near Kenilworth, they are sweet, charming and courteous.
‘I don’t mean it in a rude way, of course, but who are you and why are you here?’ says a bemused Pippa, when she comes in from school to find me helping Vikie unpack her vast grocery shop.
‘And would you like to come and see our chickens?’
Outside we chase three escaped hens back into their pen. After major surgery in 2011 to correct her inward-pointing feet, Pippa is able to walk more easily. She and her siblings love the security, peace and freedom of the family home in which they have lived their entire lives. Little wonder they were distraught when they learned the route of HS2 — the proposed high-speed railway line — is scheduled to run 100 yards from their home.
Vikie’s life is already mind- bogglingly busy. Aside from parenthood, she has written a book about her life; she runs an autism support group, Autism One On One, and speaks about the condition. Now she has added campaigning against HS2 to her commitments.
The family home falls just outside the compensation zone. She would not get a penny if she wished to move, which she doesn’t. But then, of course, her rural idyll will become a building site; the value of her home will plummet.
‘While the rest of us know intuitively how to behave in polite society, autistic people have to learn that skill.’
‘We’ll have to live with years of construction work, then the noise, vibration, disruption of the train itself,’ she says. ‘For any family it would be sheer hell. For young people with autism, that level of disruption is disastrous.’
You may consider, of course, that the family has suffered enough. Vikie’s husband, Paul, took his own life in 2007, aged 51. Vikie and their children had to deal not only with their grief and loss, but also with the awful nature of his death.
‘Paul was severely depressed and had suffered for years from various mental health issues,’ says Vikie. ‘He cut his wrists and throat and bled to death. The police found him in the woods behind our house.
‘I just felt abject terror. I didn’t have time for grief. I didn’t know how I would look after so many children on my own.
‘And Paul left debts of around £1 million. I hadn’t realised he’d remortgaged the house to the hilt, and though many of his debts were written off, I still had to struggle with the financial chaos he’d left.
‘At the time, we were running our own company supplying games to conferences, exhibitions, business meetings, and all I could do was plough on, like a steam train.
The family in 2007 - around the time of Paul's death. The family were distraught when they learned the route of HS2 - the proposed high-speed railway line - is scheduled to run 100 yards from their home
‘One week I had to take the children to 18 appointments — GPs, hospitals, physios, speech therapists, psychologists — and I was trying to run the business, too.
‘I had to organise life like a military campaign. Some nights I didn’t even go to bed. Then, in May 2008, I collapsed. My doctor wanted me to stay in hospital, but I wouldn’t.
‘I knew it would traumatise the children. I had to go to bed for four weeks and a nurse came to me every day. We got by. We weren’t beaten.’ Vikie is the youngest of three children, and her brother Tony, 59, is autistic and lives in sheltered accommodation.
Though science has yet to prove autism is genetic, Vikie aligns herself with the growing body of experts who believe it is. Her younger children’s cerebral palsy, however, is not linked to their autism, and is merely an unfortunate coincidence.
‘Osborn was born with the cord around his neck; Pippa with severe jaundice. Both are connected with cerebral palsy,’ she says. It seems extraordinary that an afternoon spent with a family beset by so many problems should prove to be uplifting. But it is.
Vikie herself is the youngest of three children and her brother Tony, 59, is autistic and lives in sheltered accommodation. The mother believes autism is genetic and was passed down from her sibling
Kacie, a budding fashion designer, alone in a world not governed by the quirks of autism, grew up with an unusual perspective on life.
‘I think I became a bit confused about what was socially acceptable,’ she says. ‘I thought it was usual to be dealing with meltdowns and I assumed people inadvertently upset each other all the time.’
Each child has an astute level of self-awareness. Pippa tells me: ‘New situations make me anxious. And I’m not too good at expressing my feelings. When I’m sad I usually laugh, which means I laugh when I get told off. And sometimes I nudge people a bit too hard if I’m excited. But I don’t mean to hurt them.’
Osborn’s autism manifests itself differently. ‘He’s factual, pedantic, adorable and funny,’ says Vikie. ‘If I say it’s 8.30am, he’ll say: “Actually, Mum, it’s 8.28am.” And he doesn’t understand metaphor.
‘He’ll dissect every conversation down to the minutest detail. He’s scientific. He doesn’t do chit-chat.’
'I just felt abject terror. I didn’t have time for grief. I didn’t know how I would look after so many children on my own.'
So, how does he cope living with seven women? ‘Usually very well, though it can be tricky,’ he smiles.
I ask him to tell me about himself. ‘I don’t really like to describe myself, because if I’m positive it could sound boastful,’ he begins, tentatively. ‘But I think I’m fair, moral and ethical and I can be honest, even if it hurts. I think being autistic can make you less afraid to be blunt.
‘And there are situations that freak me out. For instance, if I meet a group of teenagers in the street I feel intimidated. I was bullied in the past. There aren’t so many people around like me.’
Against extreme odds, Vikie has produced a kind, confident and sweet-natured brood of children.
She worries about their futures — of course she does — and their capacity to live autonomously, but she remains confident and hopeful they will. Neither does she view their autism, which has undoubtedly been a challenge, as an encumbrance. On the contrary, she feels there is much to celebrate.
‘They are all learning to understand the world and how it works,’ she says. ‘It’s a huge, constant pressure, but they are dealing with it.
‘And there are many positives about autism. The children have the ability to focus intensely, to immerse themselves in a task and dedicate themselves absolutely to it.
Reflecting on the past few years, Vikie says: 'Though it's been very tough, I've watched my children's development and I wouldn't change a thing. Because it's been quite magical'
‘They have the capacity to cut to the crux of things because they see everything in black and white; they’re not clouded by emotion.
‘It makes me so upset when I see parents bursting into tears when their child has just been diagnosed as autistic. I want to tell them there is much to be hopeful about.
‘Though it’s been very tough, I’ve watched my children’s development and I wouldn’t change a thing. Because it’s been quite magical.’
UNRAVELLED: The Inspirational Story Of A Journey Out Of Darkness by Vikie Shanks and Lynne Barrett-Lee (Thistle, £3.99, from Amazon).
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Culled from Dailymail.co.uk