My autis­tic son’s crip­pling lone­li­ness

Spec­trum dis­or­der in­spired mom to write a book on deal­ing with his sex­u­al­ity

The Star Early Edition - - HEALTH - KATHY LETTE PIC­TURE: EPA

‘WILL I ever have a girl­friend, Mom?” My tall, hand­some son asked me one night.

“I just don’t seem to be on the same wave­length as girls my own age. No wo­man ever seems to pick up my sig­nal.”

It was true. De­spite Julius’s charm, in­tel­li­gence and gen­tle kind­ness, my autis­tic son might as well have been re­lay­ing trans­mis­sions from Al­pha Cen­tauri.

When he was born, Jules walked and talked early – he seemed so ad­vanced. But then, around 13 months, he lost his lan­guage.

It was as though his com­puter had crashed. He didn’t speak again un­til he was fourand-a-half, but once he’d found his vo­cal cords he just bab­bled away. Words streamed out of him, a geyser of words and sto­ries and tan­gen­tial, lovely logic.

He knows the right tem­per­a­ture for sperm whales to mate and that sea­horses are the only species whose males give birth. He knows that “triskaideka­pho­bia” means ex­treme fear of the num­ber 13.

Blessed with the pho­to­graphic mem­ory of a sa­vant, he knows the re­sult of ev­ery ma­jor ten­nis game ever played.

But the one thing Julius, who is now 26, doesn’t know is how to read so­cial sit­u­a­tions, which is why he so of­ten finds him­self ex­iled into so­cial Siberia.

At school, the bul­ly­ing was con­stant. Aged nine, he came home with a sign sticky-taped to his back say­ing: “Kick me, I’m a re­tard.”

You might as well have ripped my heart out of my chest and stomped on it.

“What does it mean when peo­ple call you a ’tard, Mom?’ he’d said, trau­ma­tised. I lied.

I so wanted the world to wel­come my boy, to re­spect and value his quirky qual­i­ties, but it was clearly never go­ing to hap­pen.

Cold-shoul­dered, ex­cluded, belittled, bul­lied, lost and lonely – this was to be his life. Even though, with heroic de­ter­mi­na­tion, he never stopped try­ing to fit in.

Since hit­ting pu­berty, my son has at­tempted every­thing to at­tract fe­males – every­thing ex­cept saun­ter­ing through town hold­ing a plac­ard say­ing, “Free De­signer Shoes.”

But to girls his own age, his idio­syn­cra­sies prove just too exotic. Peo­ple on the autis­tic spec­trum are truly orig­i­nal, but the av­er­age teenage girl doesn’t think out­side the “neu­rotyp­i­cal” box.

On and on they came, the end­less ev­ery­day put-downs. One girl called him a “spaz”. An­other took him to a party so her friends could make fun of his colour­ful ver­nac­u­lar.

Years of end­less re­jec­tions meant that, by 20, my son’s con­fi­dence was so di­min­ished, you’d need a Hub­ble tele­scope to de­tect it.

“What can I do, Mom? The end­less re­jec­tion, it’s break­ing me down,” he said, fi­nally. “I strug­gle, Mom,” mis­ery ris­ing off him like steam.

“Maybe women will for­ever find me freakish and geek­ish?” he said, sadly, af­ter a girl he’d asked out told him he was a loser.

Some days, his de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety were off the scale. His moods dark­ened. He seemed to shut down, closed in upon him­self like a hol­i­day cot­tage shut up for the win­ter.

Even though we were sit­ting safely at our kitchen ta­ble, he looked as though he was be­ing buf­feted by the fiercest winds.

“If you’d known I’d be autis­tic, would you have aborted me?” he asked.

“I’m sorry I’m such a dis­ap­point­ment as a son.”

Af­ter he’d gone to bed, I slumped down on the couch, buried my head in the cush­ions and cried my eyes out. It was then I de­cided that I had to help him. But how?

At first I joined him up to dat­ing web­sites. But the pro­file Julius wrote – “Come and join me in my magic world where re­la­tion­ships are at their very zany best” – put girls off.

The only wo­man who re­sponded was an 88-year-old great-grand­mother whose ad­vert read, “Time wasters need not ap­ply” – which at least made us laugh.

I found my­self con­fid­ing to other par­ents of autis­tic chil­dren and teenagers and re­alised they were go­ing through the same angst.

The one thing ev­ery par­ent wants is for their child to find love and com­pan­ion­ship. To see them scorned is heart-wrench­ing.

Then came what I know must seem a quite as­ton­ish­ing sug­ges­tion. Not one, but two of the moth­ers I’d be­friended through the Na­tional Autis­tic So­ci­ety sug­gested that we take our sons to a brothel.

I mean, what kind of mother gives her son the sort of ad­vice cham­pi­oned by Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni?

But even the tem­po­rary so­lace of sex might do some­thing for his flag­ging con­fi­dence.

Is so­lic­it­ing a pros­ti­tute a se­ri­ously ab­nor­mal thing to do? Yes. But mother­ing a child with autism tends to re­cal­i­brate one’s view of nor­mal.

And so we asked our male friends how to go about it – only to be met with blan­ket non-co-op­er­a­tion till one pal replied face­tiously, “Great idea. I’ll just run it by my wife, shall I?”

I asked a French girl­friend who is very worldly. “How can you, a fem­i­nist, con­done pros­ti­tu­tion?” she re­sponded with a sear­ing glare.

Soon af­ter­wards, I was driv­ing past a red-light dis­trict near Liver­pool Street sta­tion. On im­pulse, I veered off the main road into a labyrinth of dark streets.

“As women skulked to­wards me out of the shad­ows, my heart thumped against my ribcage. What the hell was I do­ing there? I was more likely to be found at a book club than on a kerb crawl.

Be­sides, even if I did pick up a pros­ti­tute, how would I ne­go­ti­ate the trans­ac­tion?

No, this was a bad, bad idea. I waved my hand back and forth like a wind­shield wiper to shoo the women away. When it came to par­ent­ing, I ob­vi­ously needed a hat marked “trainee”.

It also crossed my ad­dled brain that I was con­tem­plat­ing an il­le­gal act. Kerb crawl­ing for your child would prove a pretty hard con­cept to ex­plain to a judge. And, how would I sur­vive in jail? I’m a writer. The only wound I’ve ever re­ceived is a pa­per cut.

I went into spooked deer mode and bolted.

Then, mirac­u­lously, on the eve of his 21st birth­day, my son met a beau­ti­ful young wo­man who ap­pre­ci­ated his wit and warmth and in­di­vid­u­al­ism. They fell in love and, well, na­ture took its course.

Other moth­ers are over the moon when their sons get into Har­vard or climb Mount Ever­est.

But I have never been hap­pier than the day my son got his first girl­friend. And Jules was so ex­cited.

Per­haps it’s just as well that I aban­doned the kerb crawl­ing. Just a few days later, I read that the fa­ther of an autis­tic teenage boy had been ar­rested try­ing to pick up a pros­ti­tute for his lonely son, and I re­alised with a jolt that this could have been me.

Luck­ily, the fa­ther in­volved was let off with a sus­pended sen­tence. No doubt the bleak re­al­ity had been clear to the judge. Who would look af­ter the autis­tic son while the dad was in prison? How would the boy cope with­out his carer, his rock, his com­pan­ion?

At least the court case gave me the be­gin­ning of my new novel, Best Laid Plans, in which a mid­dle-aged, mid­dle-class mom is ar­rested pick­ing up a pros­ti­tute for her boy. It is based not just on me, but on shared ex­pe­ri­ences with par­ents in the autis­tic com­mu­nity.

It’s soon to be adapted as an eight-hour tele­vi­sion se­ries, which Jules and I hope will also help to take the stigma out of autism and – who knows – en­cour­age girls to think and date out­side the box.

Dis­abled peo­ple are never de­picted in a strongly sex­ual con­text; they are ei­ther pitied or in­spi­ra­tional. Ei­ther way, they are ex­cluded from the in­ti­macy that makes life worth liv­ing.

There is clearly more to ro­mance than the Hol­ly­wood ver­sion. But what I want the novel to con­vey is that we must stop try­ing to force peo­ple on the spec­trum to act nor­mal and just let them be their best autis­tic selves.

Jules has been play­ing Ja­son on BBC’s Holby City for 18 months and is adored by the pro­ducer, direc­tors and all the other ac­tors.

He is watched by mil­lions of peo­ple a week and is now stopped for au­to­graphs. As a cam­paigner for autism, he has given me his whole­hearted per­mis­sion to write this piece, as long as I stress that, af­ter four “in­trigu­ing ro­mances”, he is cur­rently sin­gle again and look­ing for love.

All par­ents find them­selves ma­rooned in a psy­cho­log­i­cal mine­field when their chil­dren start dat­ing. But “nor­mal” when it comes to sex? We all have spe­cial needs…

Some may con­demn me morally for exploring the idea of pros­ti­tu­tion. But con­stant re­jec­tion and crip­pling lone­li­ness is heart­break­ing for par­ent and child alike.

Why should they be de­nied the in­alien­able right to pur­sue love, hap­pi­ness and hu­man sex­ual con­tact?

Best Laid Plans is pub­lished by Ban­tam Press.

Teen girls don’t think out­side the neu­rotyp­i­cal box

ON SAME WAVE­LENGTH: Peo­ple with autism at the World Autism Aware­ness Day in Ban­ga­lore, In­dia. The writer says her son’s re­jec­tion was heart­break­ing.

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