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Julius Robertson is charm­ing, witty, and a TV star. He’s also the in­spi­ra­tion for his mother Kathy Lette’s brazen new novel. In a poignant in­ter­view, mother and son tell Juliet Rieden how re­veal­ing to The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly five years ago that Juli

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ● ALANA LANDSBERRY STYLING ● MAT­TIE CRO­NAN

the in­spir­ing suc­cess of Kathy Lette’s autis­tic son

Julius Robertson and Kathy Lette make the most as­ton­ish­ing and en­gag­ing dou­ble act. Kathy, 58, with her quick-fire puns and ir­re­press­ibly youth­ful joie de vivre, and Julius, 26, with his cut­ting dry wit, founded in sear­ing truths, and ex­tra­or­di­nary chutz­pah. “A lot of my friends sim­ply adore him. They say he’s the most in­ter­est­ing per­son at par­ties be­cause he’s so funny,” says Kathy, star­ing lov­ingly at 1.83m Julius, who’s pol­ish­ing off the plate of ba­con and eggs his mum has just whipped up for brunch in their Syd­ney apart­ment.

There’s no ques­tion that Jules is a chip off the old block – both Kathy’s and his dad Ge­of­frey Robertson’s (a Queen’s Coun­sel and hu­man rights bar­ris­ter) – but part of the charm of this unique mother-son re­la­tion­ship is its hon­esty; there’s no ar­ti­fice at all here, there can’t be. Julius, who has Asperger’s, a de­vel­op­men­tal disor­der on the autism spec­trum, doesn’t know how to lie – though he does love to tease, I soon dis­cover – and Kathy has learned that the only way to live with her son’s con­di­tion is head on, how­ever con­fronting that may be.

Five years ago, Kathy “outed” her son to The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly, re­veal­ing his Asperger’s for the first time in a pub­lic arena. For 21 years, through hun­dreds of media interviews, Kathy had avoided dis­cussing her fam­ily; her chil­dren were strictly out of bounds. Then she wrote a novel in which the hero had autism and was clearly based on Jules. It was as if she was will­ing her­self to talk. “I was so ner­vous and torn about com­ing out about Jules’ autism. I didn’t want to in­vade my son’s pri­vacy, but only good things came from it,” says a re­lieved Kathy. “It taught me a great les­son that it’s al­ways bet­ter to shine a light into a dark cor­ner… and in all hon­esty, Jules and I have to thank The Aus­tralian Women’s

Weekly for his ca­reer.”

Kathy is re­fer­ring to his bur­geon­ing ca­reer as an ac­tor. With his Asperger’s out and proud, a great weight seemed to have been lifted from son and mother, and Jules found the con­fi­dence to pur­sue his dream. At home in London, he started act­ing classes, join­ing a group called Ac­cess All Ar­eas, which spe­cialises in act­ing for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

“Jules’ first big ob­ses­sion was Shake­speare. He used to do mono­logues from Ham­let when he was six. I don’t think he re­ally un­der­stood it, but he loves the words and would mem­o­rise them,” says Kathy.

“I think Ham­let had Asperger’s,” Jules in­ter­rupts. “I can see that,” says Kathy,>>

laugh­ing. “The ob­ses­sive­ness, the lack of abil­ity to read emo­tional sit­u­a­tions; he doesn’t even spot that his girl­friend is sui­ci­dal, for good­ness sake!” Jules is nod­ding. He’s not em­bar­rassed to dis­cuss his con­di­tion and is painfully aware of its of­ten frus­trat­ing short­com­ings.

“You know, it’s tricky liv­ing with autism. It’s quite hard,” Jules tells me later. “I have OCD [ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive disor­der, a con­di­tion which in­volves com­pul­sive and rep­e­ti­tious behaviour, such as turn­ing a light switch on and off, or ex­ces­sive hand wash­ing]. I have luck the­o­ries, so many luck the­o­ries,” he says, sigh­ing.

“That’s things like wear­ing a spe­cial shirt to bring luck,” ex­plains Kathy.

“And I suf­fer from ter­ri­ble anx­i­ety,” Jules says. “I al­ways need peo­ple to as­sure me that ev­ery­one’s go­ing to be okay. I get so wor­ried and I can’t re­as­sure my­self.”

Cur­rently, Jules is in­con­solable on the is­sue of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, for which he feels per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble. He says he should have re­alised and warned peo­ple. “I have de­pres­sion be­cause of this, be­cause none of us could do any­thing, which hurts a lot,” says Jules, who ex­presses what he’s feel­ing when he’s feel­ing it.

“Trump has been a cock­tail of anx­i­ety for him,” ex­plains Kathy. “He thinks if he’d willed Hil­lary [Clin­ton] more good luck and put more on his Face­book, he could have changed things. I said, ‘Jules, you don’t have any Amer­i­can fol­low­ers and you don’t vote there.’ And he said, ‘I know that log­i­cally, but my luck the­o­ries over­ride it.’”

It’s likely that Jules’ com­pul­sive con­di­tions are a bonus in the act­ing arena, where mem­o­ris­ing lines and rep­e­ti­tion is key. Cer­tainly it hasn’t held Jules back. Hav­ing won a string of awards on stage, he landed a break­through role when the BBC cast him in their hit hospi­tal drama Holby City. It’s the first time a TV drama has cast an ac­tor with autism to play an autis­tic char­ac­ter and “has done more to take the stigma out of the con­di­tion than a mil­lion dry doc­u­men­taries,” says Kathy. “My boy has put the artis­tic into autis­tic and I could not be more proud of him.” She grins.

Julius, who plays hospi­tal porter Ja­son, is now watched by six mil­lion Brits every week. He’s recog­nised in the street and fre­quently asked for au­to­graphs and self­ies. Not bad for the lad who was bul­lied at school and came home reg­u­larly with a sign on his back say­ing, “Kick me, I’m a re­tard.”

“If you’d told me five years ago his life was go­ing to take such a pos­i­tive turn, I’d have laughed in your face,” says Kathy. “I was busy build­ing down my hopes. Less than 15 per cent of autis­tic peo­ple are in the work­force, which is a much lower in­clu­sion rate than other dis­abil­i­ties, de­spite their of­ten high IQs. I pre­sumed Jules’ only fu­ture would be liv­ing in a bed­sit on ben­e­fits.”

Jules, how­ever, had no such mis­giv­ings. “I de­cided I wanted to be an ac­tor a few years ago. I re­ally could see it in my­self and when I saw my favourite ac­tors in movies, I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this.’”

Kathy was fiercely sup­port­ive, but also qui­etly fear­ful. Jules feels very deeply and says what he thinks with­out a fil­ter. Such sear­ing hon­esty can be hi­lar­i­ously funny, but it can also get Jules into sticky sit­u­a­tions. How would he cope act­ing, which is, af­ter all, about pre­tend­ing?

“I kept think­ing how could some­one autis­tic be an ac­tor be­cause you have to learn to emote and you have to be so nu­anced,” Kathy says. “But then I thought to my­self, ac­tu­ally autis­tic peo­ple are act­ing all the time, try­ing to act nor­mal, to be neu­rotyp­i­cal. And I re­mem­ber, Jules, you used to come into a room some­times and if we got off to a bad start, you’d say, ‘Let’s do it again,’ and you’d leave the room and come back in. It was like take two, just like it is in act­ing.”

“I re­mem­ber that. I haven’t done that for ages,” Jules says, with a wist­ful air of ma­tu­rity. De­spite his anx­i­ety about so many as­pects of his life, he is com­pletely con­fi­dent about his act­ing skills and forged ahead with­out any help from his high-pro­file par­ents.

“I was amazed, hon­estly,” says Kathy. “I would watch him on stage and think, ‘You’re re­ally good.’ But I pre­sumed I was just wear­ing my de­voted-mum gog­gles, to­tally blinded by love. The part in Holby had noth­ing to do with me. His agent sent him to the au­di­tion and he did it all by him­self.”

“I au­di­tioned and I was so flaw­less and so smooth that they de­cided that it was my shot,” says Jules, with a wicked grin. “I was ner­vous at the be­gin­ning of Holby be­cause I was walk­ing into some­thing new and I wasn’t sure how to ap­proach it. But once the early episodes wrapped up, I started to feel re­ally com­fort­able and by the be­gin­ning of last year, I was to­tally re­laxed. The cast are great. We’ve got bril­liant ac­tors from the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany like Jemma Red­grave and Cather­ine Rus­sell.”

“Jemma Red­grave just sent me this beau­ti­ful email say­ing that they love work­ing with Jules be­cause he’s so en­thu­si­as­tic and it re­minds them how lucky they are to work in this in­dus­try and not to take it for granted,” says Kathy. “Sto­ries about autis­tic kids are of­ten so sad and soul-de­stroy­ing. But Jules proves that you can turn your neg­a­tives into a pos­i­tive. My ad­vice to other strug­gling par­ents is to find out what your autis­tic kid is good at and feed their ob­ses­sions.”

Jules is clearly hav­ing a ball. In be­tween shoots, he runs lines with

other mem­bers of the cast and by all ac­counts is one of the most pop­u­lar ac­tors in the troupe. “There are these gor­geous make-up ladies there and I’ve got good taste in women, you know. I haven’t dated any of them yet, but I’m work­ing on it.”

The world of dat­ing and find­ing his part­ner in life is a real stick­ing point for Jules and a source of worry for his mum, who ex­plores the sub­ject in depth in her new novel, Best Laid Plans, a se­quel to The Boy Who Fell to Earth, which deals with the taboo sub­ject of autism and sex. “Once more I’m ner­vous about in­vad­ing my son’s pri­vacy, but sex for the ‘dif­fer­ently abled’ is an im­por­tant is­sue. And no­body ever speaks about it,” says Kathy. The novel opens with Lucy, a mid­dle-class teacher and mum, try­ing to so­licit a pros­ti­tute for her autis­tic son.

“Best Laid Plans is a work of fic­tion, so it’s not Jules’ story, but I did use a few things from his life,” says Kathy. “For ex­am­ple, when he was des­per­ate to lose his vir­gin­ity be­fore his 21st birth­day, I did ac­tu­ally con­sider hir­ing a pros­ti­tute. Of course, as a fem­i­nist, I couldn’t and didn’t re­sort to this des­per­ate mea­sure, but the thought def­i­nitely crossed my mind.

“Thank­fully, Jules got a girl­friend just be­fore his 21st birth­day and, well, na­ture took its course! But around that time, I did read a news­pa­per story of a fa­ther who was ar­rested for kerb-crawl­ing to pick up a pros­ti­tute for his dis­abled 19-year-old son and it was then that the idea for my novel kick-started into cre­ativ­ity.”

Jules has had four girl­friends to date and is des­per­ate to find his soul mate, whom he hopes to meet at work. “I wish I had a girl­friend. Even this great line of work hasn’t got me one yet,” he says, with an en­chant­ing half-smile.

I ask him what his pick-up line is. “I like to say, ‘I didn’t know they could af­ford to hire su­per­mod­els here at the BBC!’” Jules an­swers, quick as a flash.

“He’s hav­ing a bit of a drought right now,” says Kathy. “But when he’s in love, he’s just so far above cloud nine, air traf­fic con­trollers keep ra­dio­ing in his po­si­tion be­cause he feels ev­ery­thing so in­tensely. He wor­ships her. It’s amaz­ing to watch.”

Jules says he’d love to marry one day and set­tle down. “I wish that women were more ac­cept­ing of me. Some­thing scares them about dat­ing me.” He lives partly at the fam­ily home in North London and partly in a nearby flat of his own, where he spends three or four nights a week.

Kathy con­fesses that, while she loves to see him be­ing in­de­pen­dent, she lives on eggshells most of the time.

“Every time he goes out of the door, I’m wor­ried that he’ll mis­read a so­cial sit­u­a­tion or some­one will mis­read him and he’ll get his lights punched out or be ar­rested. But he’s 26 and I have to learn to let go.

“Par­ents of autis­tic kids know that we can never cut the psy­cho­log­i­cal um­bil­i­cal cord, but their con­di­tion doesn’t mean that they’ll al­ways be liv­ing in our at­tics. With the right sup­port and en­cour­age­ment, they can give back to so­ci­ety in the most re­mark­able ways. The lat­eral, lit­eral, tan­gen­tial logic of autis­tic peo­ple is truly unique, cre­ative and in­spir­ing. As my son has taught me, there is no such thing as nor­mal and ab­nor­mal, just or­di­nary and ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

Kathy is in the process of split­ting from hus­band Ge­of­frey, which she hopes won’t re­ver­ber­ate too much on Jules. “I re­ally don’t want to say much. Ba­si­cally, Ge­off and I have sep­a­rated on the warm­est of terms and re­main close and com­mit­ted to the fam­ily we have cre­ated to­gether. I think that, for women, life is in two acts

– the trick is to sur­vive the in­ter­val.

I’m in the in­ter­val right now, but I’m def­i­nitely buy­ing a big round of drinks!

“Ge­off is the smartest man I’ve ever met, saving the world’s un­der­dogs from their ken­nels. I love and re­spect him so much and al­ways will. Some­times it’s just good to take a breather and break from each other to recharge. I don’t know what will hap­pen in the fu­ture. I’m def­i­nitely go­ing to spend more time in Aus­tralia. I miss home so much.”

Jules says he too doesn’t rule out liv­ing and work­ing in Aus­tralia. Ca­reer­wise, he would love to score a role play­ing a reg­u­lar “neu­rotyp­i­cal” char­ac­ter. “That’s our mis­sion, isn’t it, Jules? Imag­ine play­ing a bad­die in a James Bond movie,” poses Kathy.

“That would be re­ally fun, ac­tu­ally,” replies Jules, his beau­ti­ful mind al­ready calculating the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Cer­tainly, if any­one can make it hap­pen, Julius Robertson can.

“I wish women were more ac­cept­ing of me. Some­thing scares them.”

Best Laid Plans by Kathy Lette is pub­lished by Penguin and on sale now.

Kathy Lette and her son, Julius Robertson, pho­tographed in Syd­ney where Kathy would like to spend more time. “I miss home so much.”

Jules has built up a fol­low­ing in the BBC TV se­ries Holby City.

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