Real Life

Our boy’s battle to fit in

He’s been labelled a genius, gifted, special needs – and everything in between.

Brodie Shepherd may need a teacher aide to help him navigate a day at school, but the 13-year-old reads the phone book for fun, and his mind is a databank of numbers, codes and sequences. As well as reciting hundreds of numbers from memory, Brodie has a thing for serial numbers, postcodes and number plates.

While the unique teenager has been diagnosed with autism and a developmental disorder, his talents in some areas know no bounds. Brodie was four years old when he hacked into his first computer to access a secure system at his preschool. At primary school, he did it again, accessing the network to order thousands of dollars’ worth of outdoor fencing.

“Watch your phone,” warns his cousin Natasha Gunn, 38. “He can get past any secure password or thumbprint. It’s Brodie’s party trick.” Natasha’s parents, Sue and Harry Gunn, took Brodie in when he was four years old. He is Sue’s nephew. “Our three kids left home and we had one lovely, quiet year on our own at home before Brodie joined us,” laughs Sue, 55.

Realising the energetic preschooler was overstimulated in the city, Sue and Harry, 60, left their home in Christchurch and moved north to rural Hurunui. Since then, his family has spent the best part of a decade offering Brodie every opportunity within their reach. But in recent years, the teen has found it increasingly difficult to fit in at his small country school. The Gunn family is now on a quest to find the best educational fit for Brodie. “There’s no doubt about it,” says Natasha. “Brodie is one out of the box.”

Sue and Harry were about to retire in 2006, but Brodie won over their hearts.

Call for help

Sue and Harry were starting to plan their retirement when they got a phone call out of the blue in 2006.

“It was my brother Jeff from Australia – his wife Jacky had died suddenly,” says Sue. “He was on his own and he needed help, so I flew out the next day.” Sue’s little brother Jeff is intellectually disabled. His wife Jacky, who had health problems, died suddenly when she was 42. When Sue arrived at the couple’s home in the Holland Park housing estate in Brisbane, it was obvious they had been struggling. “They loved Brodie, but they found caring for him hard. You know that show Hoarders? It was like that. You pulled out a drawer and it was crawling with cockroaches.”

Sue had met Brodie a few times over the years and now, more than ever, she was worried about his development. At four, he was non-verbal and still wore nappies. He walked but didn’t run. “He spent most of the day in a play pen in the lounge in front of the TV.” The boy also had digestive issues because he had been fed little else other than packets of macaroni cheese. Sue planned to stay only long enough to help Jeff get back on his feet, but it soon became clear he couldn’t cope with single fatherhood. “Harry and I had plans to fly to Rarotonga at the end of the month,” says Sue. “It was to be the honeymoon we never had and our first overseas trip together.” After a few days with Brodie, she knew she couldn’t make the trip. “I called Harry and said, ‘Change of plan. How would you feel if I brought Brodie home?’”

Natasha, who shares Brodie’s care with her parents, says he can hack into phones with ease.

Quiet genius

Back in New Zealand, the family soon realised Brodie could actually read. “One day, he stood in front of a road sign and read it all out, words like ‘prohibited’,” says Natasha.

Although he showed no emotion over his mother’s passing, he recalled the number plates of all the emergency vehicles that came to his house when she died. He can still remember them to this day. Brodie quickly settled into country life at Hurunui. Although he lives with Sue and Harry, their adult children, Natasha, Joshua, 36, and Alana, 32, pitch in as much as they can. Jeff also visits his son from Australia.

However, in the last few years, Brodie has become more challenging and disruptive at school. “He does a lot of hand- flapping and fixating on ideas,” admits Sue. “He doesn’t hurt anyone, but people don’t know what to make of it.” The family says Brodie doesn’t easily fit a mainstream class or a special needs class. “We need a school that can understand Brodie and just fit with him,” tells Natasha. Sue has been looking at schools around New Zealand that offer an education for young people with specific requirements. Most carry a $20,000 annual price tag, so the Gunn family is fundraising on Givealittle.

Sue says her brother Jeff spent most of his school years victimised and misunderstood. If the Gunn family can’t find the right school, they believe their only option is to pay for specialist help, which is not government-funded. “Brodie could either fall by the wayside or end up programming for Microsoft,” tells Natasha. “We want to get him on the right path so he can live up to his full potential.”

Brodie’s mum Jacky died suddenly aged 42, leaving Brodie and his dad Jeff to fend for themselves.

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