Simply Woman & Home

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

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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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