When Woman's Day catches up with Sonia Gray and her gorgeous nine-year-old twins for a photo shoot at their Auckland home, it's a laugh a minute, with lively nine-year-olds Thandie and Inez skipping through the garden and singing a song about a "hot chocolate doggy".
But it hasn't all been giggles and good times for the family recently, with the Lotto presenter and former Shortland Street actress, 44, confessing, "If you'd have turned up this time last year, I would've been in tears and covered in bite marks."
Though her daughter Inez, an aspiring architect, is an absolute delight on our shoot, chatting nonstop about her favourite books, the little girl became a big worry for Sonia and her partner, the twins' dad Simon Chesterman, 40, when her behaviour abruptly changed at the age of six.
"She was always a full-on child and we joked that Nezzie ruled our family, but she just stopped doing all the things other kids were doing," recalls Sonia.
"She'd loved school, taught herself to read and was devouring all this knowledge, then suddenly she wasn't coping."
"She stopped eating everything except for three or four foods, and the range of clothing she'd wear deteriorated from three dresses to two and then just one thin summer dress, which she wore every single day, no matter how cold it was. We had to wash it every night until it fell apart.
"She wouldn't let me brush or wash her hair for two months, so it turned into this matted dreadlock. She stopped playing with other kids at school. She was pulling away from the world."
But the most frightening aspect was Inez's violent rages, which could be triggered by something as innocent as the oven being on when she didn't expect it or the sudden noise of a tissue being pulled out of its box.
Trips to the mall would often end in meltdowns, with Inez screaming and hitting her mum. At one point, she even pulled a knife on Sonia's mother.
A teary Sonia says, "It all happened so quickly, it felt like someone had picked up a sledgehammer and driven it through our family. All of a sudden, I was in the principal's office every week, hearing all these things my kid had done. It was like this terrible dream."
Terrified, Sonia took Inez to see a GP, who told her, "You've just got a really hungry kid. Maybe give her some juice after school." But the devoted mum was certain there was more to it.
"I knew there was something seriously wrong, but it took a while to persuade anyone else – she seems normal a lot of the time. I had to fight for anyone to believe it."
Tears now rolling down her cheeks, Sonia continues, "It's terrible seeing someone you love in so much pain. Life is a struggle for her and she's very aware that she's different. She can see how other kids interact and she's frustrated that it's not so easy for her, so she starts getting angry. She'll hit herself in the head and cry, 'Why am I like this?' It's heartbreaking."
Recently, the family pretended they were starring in an episode of The X Factor, with Sonia as Simon Cowell and Inez as a contestant with a typically sad backstory.
In her "audition", she told her mum, "When I was little, I was diagnosed with something starting with A that's really hard for my family to deal with. I get angry and I hit people when I don't mean to. But one morning, I woke up and wanted to be a better person, so that's why I'm here today – to become an amazing singer and a better person."
Sonia burst into tears and asked if Inez really felt like that, to which she replied, "No, Mum, I lied to Simon Cowell. I do have these really good times when I don't get angry, but then I ruin everything by doing it again. I just want to be normal."
Fortunately, with the help of therapists, teachers and organisations like Autism New Zealand, Inez has improved in leaps and bounds in the past year.
It's a case of "two steps forward, one back", says Sonia, but the unique little girl's family and school now understand her behaviour, and she's learnt strategies to manage her meltdowns.
Sonia smiles, "We do worry about the future, but we try to be really positive about what's ahead. Nezzie has two parents who love her and will do anything for her, plus everyone at school adores her – they're all rooting for her.
"But it's also important to acknowledge the struggles of other kids like Nezzie who don't have the same support we do. There are thousands of families falling apart and I want them to know they're not alone. I hope this story draws some awareness to the need for understanding."
Sonia – now filming the Choice TV show Kai Safari with comedian Pio Terei – is thankful for the team at Lotto, explaining, "I feel very lucky that I've got a job where everybody surrounds me with love. I've had to bring the girls in when I've struggled to cope and everyone has been so helpful. And I've often come in completely in tears and they'll let me offload without judging."
Thandie, a lover of art and animals, has also proven to be a big help with her twin, Sonia says.
"She used to get really anxious when Nezzie would kick off and I'd have to take her to stay with a friend, but now she's the
best person at dealing with it. She understands Nez is doing her best and she's really sweet when her sister is struggling. It's a twin thing – she just has this empathy and understanding."
Indeed, the two girls are thick as thieves during our shoot, gushing about how much they love each other.
"We have lots of fun together and she's fun to play with because she has lots of ideas," grins Inez. Giving her sister a hug, Thandie adds, "And I love having someone to play with all the time."
Smiling at her adorable twins, Sonia tells us, "This has been just the most stressful thing ever. Some days, it's almost felt like I've been drafted into some kind of war and, if I'm honest, I often want to surrender.
"But Nezzie has so many happy times these days and there was a period where she wasn't having any. She is so curious, funny and smart, and I loved seeing her performing for the camera today. It will always be hard work, but I honestly think she's going to be great."