In July 2016, my husband, Jeff, watched our then five-year-old son as he put together…
After two long years of the global COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us find ourselves tired and lacking energy for even basic tasks.
Facing a new year does not fill us with the joy of possibility as it may once have done. Where, then, do we find hope? In this uplifting summer series, Ginger Gorman talks to six extraordinary women about how they found hope in unexpected places.
When her youngest child, Lucas, was a baby, Vanessa Behnke knew there was something unique about him.
“He was a little bit different to the older two children. We noticed he was more hyperactive and just a little more of a risk taker. We love laughter and chaos in our house so…we embraced it,” she recalls.
But Vanessa and her husband, Chris, started to worry as Lucas’ behaviour escalated: “If we were to go out somewhere, we had to keep him away from other children because he would hurt them. So, he would hit them, push them, bite them…and we couldn’t quite understand why, especially because I’m very anti-violence.”
“As a parent, I thought: ‘What am I doing wrong? Am I doing something different? Have I not been firm enough?’ You know, like, I really started to doubt myself,” Vanessa recalls.
At the age of four and a half, Lucas (pictured above, on Vanessa’s lap) was diagnosed with autism level two and ADHD.
“For me, it was actually a bit of a relief because I knew then what we were—and what he was—up against. The behaviour that he was displaying started to make sense. We realised that he was actually really struggling. He was often overwhelmed,” Vanessa says.
The diagnosis also allowed the family to start getting Lucas the support he needed, including a psychologist, occupational therapist and a paediatrician.
Vanessa says parenting Lucas, who is now eight, has completely changed the way she thinks about the world—for the better.
“I became a lot more compassionate because of him,” she reflects, “It’s no good looking at things through my perspective. When I’m thinking about anything that I’m going to do with him or for him, I have to put myself in his position. If it’s going to be too overwhelming for him, I won’t put him in that situation in the first place.”
Lucas’ progress is up and down. At the moment he’s only attending school for 1.5 hours a day because of this overwhelm.
“He has not done a full day of school this whole year. It’s been really hard. His hours have actually decreased as the year has gone by,” Vanessa says.
Yet her hope is strong. Vanessa tells me a story about of Lucas’ passion for soccer, playing for Belwest.
“He’s an extremely talented footballer but had to stop playing two years ago as he was not coping and would often be violent towards other children. After being tackled, he hit a child quite hard, and then hit the parent, when the parent tried to come in to intervene,” she says.
“It’s one thing to ask people to accept your child the way they are, but we can’t expect people to accept him being violent towards them.”
At this point, Vanessa’s eyes fill with tears: “We decided we’d have to take him out, which was a really, really hard decision because he loved it. It was his thing.”
“He knows what he does, and he quite often afterwards will say ‘I wish I didn’t hurt people.’ He goes into fight or flight. It’s almost like his brain and body just take over. He has no impulse control when it reaches that point,” she says with emotion still in her voice.
The family did not give up. They focused on reward-based therapy. They also turned the backyard into a soccer pitch with fake grass and a goal post and Lucas’ dad Chris practised with him every day.
Vanessa and Chris also did a lot of so-called “social stories” with Lucas. This is a technique used to explain social situations to autistic children and help them learn socially acceptable behaviours and responses. They showed him videos of other soccer players being tackled and getting hurt and they pointed out appropriate reactions.
Sometimes Lucas would train with his older brother, Harrison’s team. Harry is 13.
“He gets along better with older kids because they’re more predictable. Their language is clearer,” Vanessa explains.
“He worked really. He was self-managing a lot more using what we call a toolbox—things that he likes to do to calm down. So, you know, listening to music, kicking a soccer ball, things like that. And improved a lot.”
“He asked if he could try again [and] with the support of our wonderful football club he was placed in a team with older kids and in June this year was able to return to what he loves most.”
“He’s actually going to go to his first actual trials next year in February. He’s super proud of himself. And we always celebrate even the little things in our family—we always verbalise and share the wins—because Lucas works so much harder than everybody else to achieve anything,” Vanessa says.
Lucas’ sister, 15-year-old Charlotte, is protective of her younger brother and at his first game back, was so nervous for him she couldn’t watch and had to go and sit in the car. She says: “My love for Lucas is a love that you can’t explain unless you’re living it.”
Vanessa agrees: “He’s such a happy child, with a great sense of humour. And the fact that he takes on these challenges, like the soccer, he just keeps persevering.”
“For me, hope is so different to everybody else’s idea of hope. Lucas is my hope. I just look at him and he’s what keeps me going,” she says.
Please note: This story was written with Lucas’ permission, and he has seen and approved the text before publication.
Feature image: Charlotte, Vanessa, Lucas, Chris and Harry