Five years ago, NETschool student, Sarah Sparks, and a glossy-coated black dog with a big heart, found each other—and formed an inseparable bond that has changed both their lives.

Thumper is a blend of border collie, labrador, golden retriever, koolie and Australian kelpie—“all the smart breeds,” Sarah points out.

While Thumper was having a troubled life—left at the RSPCA with a fractured leg, adopted then abandoned again—Sarah was facing her own challenges.

A diagnosis of Autism and ADHD was not made until she was well into her teens. By the time the diagnosis was confirmed, Sarah had endured years of being overwhelmed by situations that others took in their stride.

Many of her teachers believed she was badly behaved and an uncooperative student.

Unsurprisingly, Sarah dreaded school and became convinced she couldn’t learn. At her 7 to 10 college the open-plan multi-class learning areas were intolerable and she frequently had to leave. But she could not understand why she responded like this.

Leaving home overwhelmed Sarah with a sense of being ‘different’, leaving her perplexed by a world that didn’t feel ‘built for her’.

“I tried to hide how bad I felt from my parents,” she remembers, “but this only made me feel even more isolated.”

Enter Thumper…

Having heard of his predicament, Sarah’s mum thought he could be just what was needed. With the blessing of his former owners, Thumper became Sarah’s companion/assistance dog.

“Of all the things I’m grateful for in my life, I’m most grateful for Thumper,” Sarah says. “I’ve struggled so hard with so much and he’s allowed me to get out and do stuff I couldn’t do before.

“Thumper makes it possible for me to have a go at things I previously would have found impossible.”

He also keeps the focus off Sarah because most people notice him first.

“This actually allows me to meet more people,” she says.

With aspirations to work with dogs, either training them or as a vet, finishing school is very important and NETschool has given Sarah the setting and support to achieve this.

Of course, Thumper was welcomed at NETschool too.

“I couldn’t have done VCE without NETschool,” she reflects. “It’s a close-knit community and the Mentors are so supportive, both with our learning and how we’re travelling personally.

“Jim Cowie has done so much to help me reach for my goals, and my closest school friend also happens to have a companion/assistance dog.”

During her time at NETschool, Sarah has gradually become more trusting of others. This has led to a greater confidence to be open to new friendships and to take chances in situations she once would have avoided.

“NETschool presented me with a hard choice: to trust people—very scary—or not trust them and continue to feel isolated.”

The 2020 lockdown due to COVID was “pretty crap” and not because of the isolation.

“The lack of routine was horrible for me because I am easily distracted by other things—especially at home,” Sarah says. “I was so pleased to get back to school.”

Last year she enrolled in Allied Health, a VET subject based at the main BSSC campus. She loved the subject, found Sue Pickles an inspiring teacher, and managed to cope with attending the extensive and busy campus.

At the end of 2020, to her great delight, Sarah was notified that she had won an academic award for her work in Allied Health.

“I’ve never, ever, been given an award by any school,” she says. “Mostly I was unable to attend regularly enough to even pass. I never graduated from Year 10 and never felt I’d achieved much.”

NETschool also runs its own Recognition of Achievement awards night. In 2020 the event was pre-recorded and held in the Ulumbarra Theatre. As part of the program, Sarah participated in a group drumming performance.

All through the practices Thumper had laid quietly beside her. Then, when the performance was being recorded, and they approached the finale of their piece, Thumper—perhaps realising some longing to be a rockstar—began to bark.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Sarah says with a chuckle. “Hopefully no one heard it when it went to air.”

When Sarah is not studying, she can often be found attending to the tropical fish and shrimps she breeds and sells.

“Dog training is my favourite thing, but this comes in second,” she says. “I’ve actually just had a catfish produce about 50 ‘fry’ (the name for baby fish). I wonder if I can sell that many!”

For all the complications that life with ADHD and Autism can bring, Sarah is aware of the positives too.

“This condition allows you to have such a passion for things you are interested in and the capacity to focus intently, which is actually amazing,” she says. “When I think about how far I’ve come, healing from the things that have happened to me, I feel proud.

“If I could go back and give my 12 year-old self some advice I’d say: ‘Hang in there—some really bad stuff might be happening, but things are going to get better’.”