MY SON JULES IS THE GAR­LIC IN LIFE’S SALAD

AU­THOR KATHY LETTE TELLS VIC­TO­RIA YOUNG ABOUT NAV­I­GAT­ING HER AUTIS­TIC SON’S YOUNG ADULT­HOOD – AND THE NOVEL THAT WAS IN­SPIRED BY HIS LOVE LIFE

Woman & Home - - CONTENT -

KATHY LETTE ON NAV­I­GAT­ING HER AUTIS­TIC SON’S YOUNG ADULT­HOOD

IN AN IN­TER­VIEW WITH WOMAN&HOME FIVE YEARS AGO, AU­THOR KATHY LETTE “CAME OUT” ABOUT HER SON JULIUS’S AUTISM; SOME­THING SHE’D KEPT SE­CRET FOR 21 YEARS. HER BEST­SELLING BOOK, The Boy Who Fell to Earth, WAS A FIC­TIONAL AC­COUNT OF LIFE WITH AN AUTIS­TIC CHILD. HER NEW NOVEL,

Best Laid Plans, BROACHES THE TOPIC OF AUTISM AND SEX. KATHY, WHO LIVES IN LON­DON, ALSO HAS A DAUGH­TER, GE­ORGINA, WHO IS 24.

I’M VERY CAN­DID, SO HID­ING SOME­THING WAS OUT OF CHAR­AC­TER FOR ME. BUT I WAITED UN­TIL JULES WAS 21 TO TALK ABOUT HIS AUTISM BE­CAUSE I DIDN’T WANT TO IN­VADE HIS PRI­VACY AND I NEEDED HIS PER­MIS­SION. I DID THE RIGHT THING, BUT TALK­ING ABOUT IT IN WOMAN&HOME WAS SUCH A RE­LIEF! IT TAUGHT ME THAT IT WAS BET­TER TO SHINE A LIGHT INTO A DARK COR­NER. IT MADE OTH­ERS FEEL THEY ARE NOT ALONE AND IT CON­NECTED ME WITH THE WHOLE AUTIS­TIC COM­MU­NITY. BUT IT’S AMAZ­ING HOW MUCH STIGMA STILL SHROUDS THE CON­DI­TION. SO MY AIM BY WRIT­ING ABOUT AUTISM IS TO NOR­MALISE IT. AND THAT IN­CLUDES WRIT­ING ABOUT SEX. YOU NEVER READ ABOUT AUTISM AND SEX, BUT IT’S A BIG TOPIC

FOR US; IN FACT IT’S CEN­TRE STAGE.

JULES PREFERS TO SAY HE HAS ASPERGER’S. BUT IT’S NOT JUST THAT HE IS A “LIT­TLE BIT QUIRKY”: AUTISM IS A LIFE­LONG CON­DI­TION. IT OF­TEN MEANS A RE­MARK­ABLY HIGH IQ

– I CALL JULES MY WIKIPEDIA WITH A PULSE – BUT IT’S CHAR­AC­TERISED BY AN IN­ABIL­ITY TO COM­MU­NI­CATE EF­FEC­TIVELY, PLUS OB­SES­SIVE BE­HAV­IOUR. SO: NOT KNOW­ING WHAT TO SAY, THEN SAY­ING THE WRONG THINGS, BE­ING TOLD OFF BUT NOT UN­DER­STAND­ING WHY, FEEL­ING CON­FUSED AND LEFT OUT, IS HIS RE­AL­ITY.

HIS LACK OF FIL­TER MEANS THAT, SO­CIALLY, I’M ON TEN­TER­HOOKS. WHEN HE WAS

11, I TOOK HIM TO DOWN­ING STREET TO A CHAR­ITY FUNC­TION AND I IN­TRO­DUCED HIM TO TONY BLAIR. JULES SAID, “OH YES, YOU’RE THE ONE MY MUM CALLS, TONY BLAH BLAH BLAH.” AND I WAS LIKE, “WHO IS THIS CHILD AND WHY IS HE CALL­ING ME MOTHER?!”

WHEN JULIUS WAS DI­AG­NOSED AGED THREE, I WENT THROUGH DE­NIAL AND GUILT. BUT WHEN HE WAS SIX, I AR­RIVED AT AC­CEP­TANCE OF THIS UNIQUE LIT­TLE PER­SON. I DE­SCRIBE AUTIS­TIC PEO­PLE AS THE GAR­LIC IN LIFE’S SALAD. HOW BOR­ING WOULD LIFE BE WITH­OUT THEIR IDIO­SYN­CRATIC VIEW OF THE WORLD?

SCHOOL WAS LIKE TOR­TURE FOR JULES. HE WAS BUL­LIED AND WOULD COME HOME WITH SIGNS ON HIS BACK SAY­ING “KICK ME, I’M A RETARD”. FOR YEARS I HAD TO DRAG HIM SCREAM­ING TO SCHOOL, WHICH FELT AS IF SOME­ONE HAD GOUGED MY HEART OUT OF MY CHEST AND STAMPED ON IT. I’D COME HOME, LIE IN THE FOETAL PO­SI­TION AND CRY.

NOW JULES IS AN ADULT WE’RE IN­CRED­I­BLY CLOSE. HE’S SO SWEET AND CHARM­ING. THERE ARE DAYS WHEN HIS ANX­I­ETY IS OVER­WHELM­ING AND THERE’S A LOT OF COUN­SELLING. OTHER DAYS HE’S THE BEST COM­PANY: HI­LAR­I­OUS. HE MAKES ME LAUGH BE­CAUSE HE SEES THE WORLD IN A DIF­FER­ENT WAY. BUT WHEN YOUR CHILD HAS AUTISM YOU HAVE TO BE THEIR EV­ERY­THING: BOUNCER, MED­I­CAL EX­PERT, COUN­SEL­LOR, PSY­CHI­A­TRIST, SO­CIAL GUIDE – AND, SOME­TIMES, THEIR PIMP!

SADLY, GIRLS WHO ARE THE SAME AGE AS JULES FIND HIM TOO QUIRKY. END­LESS RE­JEC­TION MEANT HIS SELF-ES­TEEM WAS SO LIMBO LOW, I CON­SID­ERED GO­ING TO A BROTHEL TO HELP HIM LOSE HIS VIR­GIN­ITY SO HE’D KNOW

HE WAS NOR­MAL.

THEN HE MET A GIRL AND FELL IN LOVE AND NA­TURE TOOK ITS COURSE. BUT WHEN I SAW A STORY ABOUT A MAN WHO WAS AR­RESTED FOR LOOK­ING FOR A PROS­TI­TUTE FOR HIS SON WITH SPE­CIAL NEEDS I THOUGHT, “GOSH, THAT COULD HAVE BEEN ME!” AND THAT’S WHAT GAVE ME THE IDEA FOR THE BOOK, WHERE A MID­DLE CLASS MUM GETS AR­RESTED FOR KERB-CRAWL­ING.

HE’S HAD A FEW GIRL­FRIENDS – AND THERE HAVE BEEN ALARM­ING MO­MENTS. LIKE THE GIRL WHO WAS VERY PRETTY BUT TURNED OUT TO BE A SELF-HARM­ING, ANOREXIC, BIPO­LAR, KLEPTOMANIAC EX-CON­VICT.

BUT MY AP­PROACH TO JULES’S DAT­ING HAS BEEN TO EM­BRACE IT – AND TO GUIDE HIM. ONE GREAT THING ABOUT OUR RE­LA­TION­SHIP IS HOW HON­EST IT IS. HIS LACK OF FIL­TER MEANS WE CAN TALK ABOUT EV­ERY­THING.

AND HE IS SUCH A GOOD BOYFRIEND! WHEN HE’S IN LOVE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN ANY­ONE SO EU­PHORIC; HE JUST WORSHIPS THE WATER SHE WALKS ON. HE’S NOT DAT­ING AT THE MO­MENT BUT HIS GIRL­FRIEND, WHEN HE HAS ONE, BE­COMES HIS FO­CUS. I AL­WAYS THINK, “ISN’T SHE LUCKY?”

I MAKE MY BOOKS FUNNY AND FULL OF JOY AND LIGHT. BUT I DON’T TAKE THE DARK SIDE OUT COM­PLETELY BE­CAUSE IT CAN ALSO BE HARD. DI­VORCE AND DE­PRES­SION RATES AMONG PAR­ENTS OF CHIL­DREN WITH AUTISM ARE SKY HIGH BE­CAUSE IT’S SUCH A STRAIN.

WHEN A CHILD HAS AUTISM YOU HAVE TO BUILD UP THEIR SELF-ES­TEEM. AND YOU HAVE TO FEED THEIR OB­SES­SIONS BE­CAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE IT WILL TAKE THEM. WHEN JULES WANTED TO DO AN ACT­ING CLASS I THOUGHT, HOW CAN YOU PUT THE ARTIS­TIC INTO AUTIS­TIC? BUT I IN­DULGED HIM.

THEN I’D WATCH HIM AND THINK, “YOU’RE RE­ALLY GOOD.” I AS­SUMED I WAS JUST A MUM BLINDED BY LOVE GOG­GLES. THEN HE WON AN AWARD FOR HIS ACT­ING. AND THEN HE GOT AN AGENT. AND THEN HE GOT AN AU­DI­TION FOR Holby City, PLAY­ING AN AUTIS­TIC CHAR­AC­TER – AND HE

GOT THE PART; THE FIRST TIME THE BBC HAS

CAST AN AUTIS­TIC AC­TOR.

THE BIG DIF­FER­ENCE THAT IT MADE TO JULES WAS CON­FI­DENCE. THE FIRST QUES­TION EV­ERY­ONE GETS ASKED IS, “WHAT DO YOU DO?” BUT LESS THAN 15% OF PEO­PLE WITH AUTISM ARE IN THE WORK­FORCE.

IT’S HARD TO PRO­TECT AN AUTIS­TIC CHILD. THEY ARE VUL­NER­A­BLE. BUT HOW WILL YOU KNOW IF THEY’LL BE OK IN THE OUT­SIDE WORLD IF YOU NEVER LET THEM INTO IT? I USED TO SEND JULES OUT WITH A LIST OF IN­STRUC­TIONS LONGER THAN War and Peace AND ENOUGH SUP­PLIES TO SET UP A WILDER­NESS HOMESTEAD. BUT NOW HE HAS HIS OWN FLAT WHERE HE SPENDS HALF THE WEEK AND HE FUNC­TIONS PER­FECTLY WELL. HE SPENDS THE OTHER HALF WITH ME AND I AM THE ONE WITH THE ANX­I­ETY DIS­OR­DER!

AND I’VE GOT TO A GREAT POINT IN A WOMAN’S LIFE BE­CAUSE IT’S FULL OF FREE­DOM. AT 50 YOU CARE LESS ABOUT WHAT PEO­PLE THINK. I SEE THE MENOPAUSE AS THE IN­TER­VAL BE­TWEEN LIFE’S TWO ACTS. WOMEN IN THE SEC­OND ACT – WHERE I AM JULIUS ON ACT­ING, ASPERGER’S AND HIS MUM THE AU­THOR…

I THINK EV­ERY­ONE COULD KNOW MORE ABOUT AUTISM. SO IT’S GOOD THAT PEO­PLE ARE TALK­ING ABOUT IT, LIKE IN Holby AND IN MY MUM’S BOOK. I THINK MY MOTHER IS THE BEST AU­THOR OF HER GEN­ER­A­TION. SHE’S A GE­NIUS! BUT SHE’S A MOD­EST GE­NIUS.

I LOVE WORK­ING ON Holby. IT’S IN­TER­EST­ING TO PRE­TEND TO BE SOME­ONE ELSE. AND IT’S A BREAK, NOT ONLY FROM YOUR­SELF,

BUT ALSO FROM THE OUT­SIDE WORLD.

MY CHAR­AC­TER WAS ONLY SUP­POSED TO HAVE ONE STO­RY­LINE, BUT THEY LIKED ME SO MUCH THEY ARE WRIT­ING AN­OTHER. I’VE STARTED GET­TING RECOG­NISED IN THE STREET, WHICH IS EX­CIT­ING – IT LIFTS MY SELF-ES­TEEM.

I NEVER FOUND A SCHOOL THAT WAS RIGHT FOR ME. BUT I FOUND MY PLACE AMONG AC­TORS. I DON’T WANT TO BE PI­GEON­HOLED AS AN AUTIS­TIC AC­TOR, THOUGH. WHEN I LEAVE Holby I WANT TO DO A FILM WITH STEVE MARTIN AND I’D LIKE TO PLAY THE FIRST AUTIS­TIC HAM­LET, AS HE WAS CLEARLY ON THE SPEC­TRUM. BUT I’D PRE­FER TO PLAY ROMEO, OF COURSE, TO FI­NALLY GET MY JULIET. NOW – ARE FI­NAN­CIALLY IN­DE­PEN­DENT;

FULL OF EN­ERGY AND SASS, WITH GOOD GIRL­FRIENDS AND PHYS­I­CAL HEALTH. WE’VE DONE OUR TIME AS MUMS AND WHEN YOUR KIDS GET INTO THEIR TWEN­TIES, YOU GET A WHIFF OF FREE­DOM AND THINK, “I’M GO­ING TO PLEASE MY­SELF.” MY PLAN NOW IS TO DO MORE TRAV­EL­LING WITH GIRL­FRIENDS. I AL­WAYS HAVE TO BE AROUND FOR JULES. BUT I CAN STILL BE AWAY FOR BITS

OF TIME AND I’M PLAN­NING

A LOT OF FUN AND FRIVOLITY.

COME JOIN ME! W&H

Kathy’s novel, BEST LAID PLANS (Ban­tam Press), is out on 13 July

“I aim to nor­malise autism by writ­ing about it, and that in­cludes sex” “I’d like to play Ham­let… he was clearly on the spec­trum”

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