Coincidentally, it was 23 years to the day that one of Peta Bastian’s best friends, aged 17, was killed in a car accident in Adelaide. She spoke of her grief; a profound feeling of guilt that she too was a passenger yet survived.
It was also a reminder for Peta that life is never exactly how you think it is going to be. “You can make all the plans in the world,” she says. “But it will happen how it is meant to happen.” It is why she places less importance on expectations of the future and lives for now.
Peta (pictured) said she was able to grieve and move forward because of reiki, described as transferring energy through the palms of the practitioner, which they believe encourages healing. Such was the impact that she became a master teacher of the Japanese alternative medicine, delved deeply into meditation and became a registered nurse.
Yet, for all of her skills and inner strength, nothing had prepared to handle the seemingly incomprehensible experience of a stranger telling her, and her husband, Mike, who live on Hindmarsh Island, that their four-and-a-half-year-old son Sampson had autism – everything that was wrong with him and how he would struggle for the rest of his life. At four months pregnant, it gave Peta a different meaning of fear; definitely a new form of grief.
But life is just brilliant now, and Peta is presenting her story at a free autism conference Connecting the Fleurieu at the Victor Harbor Civic Centre & Victor Harbor Gospel Centre on June 30 because she cares for families with similar challenges, and as one of 10 guest speakers wants to raise awareness of autism.
Sampson turned 10 this week and he’s the most beautiful kid inside that anyone could wish for. Mike, who is manager of the Goolwa & District Community Bendigo Bank, and Peta, have two other boys, Jordan, 14, and Billy five, and as a family have emerged from challenges remarkably well.
The inside-family joke is that Mike affectionately refers to them as the Bastian Circus because so often everything is happening, and Peta sees herself as needing to be the ringmaster. “It’s nice,” she says. “I’ve got to be on my game, have myself sorted and organised in the right frame of mind.”
But there have been some incredibly tough times right since they watched Sampson struggle through tests to determine his level of autism. “I had this tunnel vision, trying to breath in a state of shock,” Peta recalled. “There was a lot of sadness and tears.
“About a week later Mike said something really beautiful to me that helped changed how we saw everything. He said, you know what; Sampson has not changed… he is still the same boy he was the day before we found out this news.
“It really struck me. Of course; Sampson hasn’t changed. Someone has told me all this information about him. Okay, how can I make his world the best it can be? As a family, how can we survive rather than struggle?
“I threw myself into learning everything I possibly could about autism for about two years. I looked at his diet; we immersed ourselves in therapies. It was in that time I realised I had buried my life in something.
“Even though I was doing the best for my child I lost myself. My relationship with my husband suffered, I isolated myself from people, I wanted to protect Sampson and myself from other people’s reactions to him… people who didn’t know or love him. I did not want negativity around us.
“We sold our house, bought a caravan and set off around Australia. There is happiness out there, we thought. Oh my goodness, it was so hard. Your difficulties don’t go away; they follow you, and they became more amplified with five in a caravan. The most difficult thing was that the sadness, the anger – all the emotions – followed and got worse.
“But ultimately, all this adversity made us a closer family. We had really awful days, but we worked hard at it. We still have days where things don’t work and we yell and throw our hands in the air – the Bastian Circus thing – but we make sure we talk to each other even when it is not easy. There is respect.”
Peta believes her meditation and reiki practice, and a connection with herself, has helped the Bastian Circus overcome challenges and find a way of living and thriving in life instead of just surviving.
She describes herself as a soulful entrepreneur, and is founder of The Soulful Mama and director of Sistership Circle Australia. As the creator of her signature program The Soul Journey, Peta works one-on-one with women throughout the world, and is also the author of the Goddess Guide to Self-Care mini-eBook and creator of Meditation Made Easy, a six-week eCourse and eBook.
As with any family with a child who has a disability, there is strain on the siblings. “There has been that danger of not paying enough attention to the other boys,” Peta said. “You try and control the world around Sampson so you are creating a nice, calm space for him, but in the end it doesn’t do anyone favours because it doesn’t help him cope with life.
“We have always been very open and communicative with Jordan. He is just an amazing young man; we are so incredibly proud of him. He is mature because he has needed to be. When he was younger he felt sad that he didn’t have a brother to play with like other brothers do. It’s just different. It is a struggle for Billy. It’s hard for him to understand why we do things a certain way.
“Sampson has his constant challenges. He faces sensory problems so he wears special ear plugs because he can hear all the noises we hear at once… he can’t turn any of them down to just hear someone talking.
“The way he hears speech is like an auditing processing disorder; the way his brain processes the information he has been given creates confusion and anxiety, and the way he deals with that is trying to control everything so he does not have anything unexpected or jump out at him.”
However, Peta and Mike never stopped believing that Sampson was still that amazing and beautiful kid inside, and it took a schoolteacher at Encounter Lutheran to further bring out the best in his learning capacity.
“Before we sent Sampson there he wouldn’t pick up a pen or pencil, but now writing and drawing are his favourite things to do,” Peta said. “They care for him at the school; his teacher is just phenomenal; he has created an environment that Sampson can learn in. Sampson is intelligent; he just needs to learn differently.
“The one thing that Sampson has learned is that it is beautiful to be unique. You can’t fit an autistic kid into the box that we all try to put each other in because they just can’t fit. You learn that this is okay, and if he doesn’t fit into the box one way then find another.”
Other guest speakers on the free Autism Conference are: Mark LeMessurier, Emma Goodall, Lucia Smith, Robyn Young, Kirsty Wirth, Dana Baltutis, Katy Correll and Kristen Messenger. For more information, and to register, email Fleurieu Families firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 8551 0501.