There isn't always a true understanding of autism and the different levels on the spectrum. Can you explain what it is?
KL: My son Julius (Jules) was diagnosed with autism aged three. Autism is a life-long neurological disorder, chiefly characterised by an inability to communicate effectively, plus inappropriate or obsessive behaviour. Not getting a joke, not knowing what to say, then saying the wrong things, being told off but not understanding why, doing your best but still getting it wrong, feeling confused, left out, frightened, out of sync, all day, every day – that is the reality of life for someone on the autistic spectrum. What many people don’t know, however, is that the condition also is often linked to a very high IQ. My own son is like Wikipedia with a pulse.
Jules was diagnosed as autistic at a young age, but is now diagnosed as having Asperger’s. Can you explain that briefly?
We now know with diagnostic hindsight that Mozart, Einstein, Van Gough, Warhol and even Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy were on the autistic spectrum. People on the higher functioning end of the spectrum are given the name of ‘Asperger's’. But with encouragement, love and support, all these unique individuals can fulfill their potential and contribute to society in the most fascinating of ways. Julius tells me that my novel is a ‘celebration of idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and being different’. And he’s right. Because how tedious it would be if we really were all the same – a case of the bland leading the bland. Autistic people are the garlic in life’s salad.
You have said that your heart has been 'ripped out' at some of the bullying Jules suffered at school. What mechanisms did you have to cope with that?
Alcohol helps a lot! And laughing with my sisters, Mum and girlfriends. My motto is – laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you get salt in your martini.
But there have been many dark, sad days. One grey, rainy afternoon my 11-year-old son arrived home from school with his shirt torn and hair matted. There was a sign sticky-taped to his back. It read: ’Kick me, I’m a retard.’ I ripped it off in fury as a tidal wave of frustration and pity surged through me. ‘The other kids called me a moron,’ he whispered, his wide blue eyes filling with tears. ‘What does that mean? Am I a moron Mum?’
Trying to protect a child with special needs from being bullied is like trying to stop ice melting in the desert. There were calls to the school, meetings, and promises of closer scrutiny in the playground. But basically, when it comes to defeating bullying – particularly when your child is an obvious target – a parent might as well be standing up to Voldemort with a butter knife.
You kept news of Jules’ autism off bounds until he was 21. Was that a hard decision given the book tours and high profile life that you live?
Well, I didn’t want to invade his privacy, but when a journalist asked was it true that I had an autistic son I didn’t want to lie because that looked as though I was embarrassed of my son and of course the opposite is true.
With my son’s blessing I wrote a novel called The Boy Who Fell To Earth to help destigmatise autism. The book is about a single mother’s rollercoaster ride of raising a child with Asperger’s. It’s basically The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – but told from the mother’s point of view.
While based on my own experiences, the book is also a tribute to all the plucky, inspirational parents I’ve met who’ve shared with me their battles against bureaucracy and bullying.
Best Laid Plans is the comedic (but poignant too at times) follow-up.
In the book you give us humour about a serious and sensitive subject. What are some of the writing techniques you use to do that?
It’s a great male myth that women aren’t funny. I think men say that because they’re worried about what it is we’re being funny about. I presume they think we spend the entire time worrying about the size of their members. Which is not true. As we also talk about the width! Which after childbirth is much more important. Women use humour to cope with all of life’s difficulties.
In the book you find a sex worker for the character with autism – is this something you've considered in real life?
Yes, I did! I actually drove through the red-light district. But luckily, before I went through with it, my son met a girl who enjoyed his quirky sense of humour and they fell in love and nature took its course. But shortly afterwards I read a news report of a father caught kerb-crawling to pick up a prostitute for his autistic son and thought, “that could have been me!” And then I had the start of a novel. But sex for the ‘differently abled’ is a taboo subject. What the novel teaches us is that when it comes to sex, we all have special needs, right?
Was writing this book cathartic?
Hey, I only write because it’s cheaper than therapy!
Autistic people are the garlic in life’s salad
Did Jules read the manuscript, did you want him to see it before it went to publication?
I read out bits to him and he loved it. But of course, it’s not an autobiography. The novel is based on all the stories and tales I’ve been told by my pals in the autistic community.
Jules is in a BBC television series, tell us about that?
Jules is currently putting the artistic into autistic on a hit BBC show called Holby City, playing a character called Jason, who is on the spectrum. He’s been a huge success. Occasionally, when I think of those school bullies, I do allow myself a few moments of light gloating!
Jules says that less than 15 percent of autistic people are in the work force, much lower than for people with other disabilities...do you think that may change, especially given the more open approach to talking about disabilities now.
It’s time employers started thinking outside the neurotypical box. Autistic people have a tangential, lateral, literal logic which is truly inspiring and original.
I try to make my novels witty as well as pithy. My aim is to disarm with charm and thereby educate by stealth. By entertaining readers and getting them to inhabit the head and the skin of a protagonist on the spectrum, it can only help to take the stigma out of autism.
What would you love to see for Jules in the future?
Love and laughter – like any mother!