My autistic son’s crippling loneliness
Spectrum disorder inspired mom to write a book on dealing with his sexuality
‘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.