Kathy Lette is funny, humorous and humane. She has published 17 books, is a compelling social commentator, yet still finds time to be the kind of mother who deserves huge praised for the way in which she has raised her autistic son, Jules.
Kathy is performing in Girls’ Night Out at the new Exchange Theatre in Twickenham. Linda Duberley talks to her about love and life.
Linda: Are Australian men really as macho as they are painted by the media?
Kathy: The surfie boys I grew up with disproved the theory of evolution – they were evolving into apes! But since then, they have evolved a tad. But Aussie women are wonderful – friendly, funny, frank, feisty, loyal and just lovely.
Linda: You have said your first book was written to strike out at the surfer boys that you grew up with. How did they treat you?
Kathy: Women were little more than a life support system to a pair of breasts. We were decorative and demure and draped over the arms of these big blonde surfies, like human handbags.
Linda: You married an Englishman is this because you believe our guys are less chauvinistic and more on your wave length?
Kathy: Geoff is actually Australian, although he’s lived in England for so long, he’s had a vowel transplant! As to English men being less chauvinistic, I’m not sure. At least in Australia the battle lines are drawn and you can see the enemy. But in Britain, the sexism is more hidden and subtle. Basically, it’s a man’s world, wherever you live!
Linda: How important have your girlfriends been to you over the years?
Kathy: As I always say, my women friends are my human wonderbras – uplifting, supportive and making me look bigger and better. My life would be totally flat without them.
Linda: I believe you may now be separated from GR – you have managed to remain good friends – was this difficult?
Kathy: Yes, we are still good friends. It’s just that marriages last so long now – from honeymoon to tomb can be seventy years or so! People change and life moves on.
Linda: Do you prefer to live in Australia or the UK?
Kathy: I like to straddle hemispheres (oh how I love a good straddle!) In Australia, the sun, the fun, the surf, the laid-back, laconic lifestyle is irresistible. But living in Britain I also get to conquer the great indoors. Britain has the world’s best galleries, theatres and museums. What’s not to love?
Linda: How would you describe your relationship with your son?
Kathy: My son Jules has autism. The upside is that autistic people are very open – they have no filter and say whatever they’re thinking. Despite all the hardships and heartache involved with raising someone with special needs, my girlfriends are actually jealous of my relationship with Jules. Once their sons hit puberty, they developed a three-grunt vocabulary of ‘na, dunno and errgh.” Whereas Jules tells me everything. Often too much! Especially when it comes to his sex life! A subject I explore in my comic novel “Best Laid Plans”.
Linda: When did you first receive the diagnosis of Autism – how old was he?
Kathy: Jules was three when we got the diagnosis. And it was a diagnosis that drags you into the dark. My son had suddenly become a plant in a gloomy room and it was my job to drag him into the light. I wrote about these experiences in my novel, “The Boy Who Fell To Earth” – although it’s not just for the parents of autistic kids. It’s a tale of mother love and those lioness claws that come out to protect our offspring.
Linda: How did you react to this?
Kathy: I think the parents of kids with special needs go through various stages. The first stage is Denial. I bankrupted myself seeing every medical expert in the county… I hate to think how many doctors’ children I have put through University! Then I felt guilt. Was it something I ate? Something I drank? Was it that one glass of wine in the final trimester? If only I’d feng-shui-ed my aura like Gweneth Paltrow! Then I felt a bit sorry for myself and drank way too much alcohol. Finally, I just accepted that this was the unique little person I’d been given and I just had to do my best by him.
Linda: Did his condition put a strain on your key relationships?
Kathy: For sure. The rates of depression, divorce and unemployment amongst parents of kids with special needs, is sky rocket high. If it hadn’t have been for my three sensational sisters, my loving parents and my gorgeous girlfriends, I would not have coped.
Linda: What kind of support did he need?
Kathy: Constant therapy and doctor’s appointments is just the beginning. Schooling is also a constant nightmare. Children on the autism spectrum are complex. And getting help is a postcode lottery. The system is designed with bureaucratic speed bumps to slow down a parent’s progress. But one thing is clear. Putting a special needs child in a mainstream school is as useless as giving a fish a bath. Overstretched, exhausted state school teachers too often treat children with special needs as though they are rare, feral creatures recently netted in the Amazon and still adjusting to captivity. And who can blame them? Such children need specialist teaching in specialist schools, which councils are reluctant to pay for.
In cities, ‘mainstreaming’ means shoving your Asperger’s child into an already overcrowded class room, along with sometimes forty other kids, many of whom don’t speak English. When teachers are not trying to master rudimentary Somali, Hindi, Romanian, Russian, Tswana, Arabic and probably a few words in Klingon, they’re also trying to cope with an assortment of special needs children plus their untrained helpers, meaning there can be up to forty-four people in the tiny classroom. A sardine would feel claustrophobic in there.
Being told off for laziness, chastised for disruptive behaviour or put on detention for failing to understand homework, it’s no wonder that, despite their often high IQ’s, the only subject at which Aspergic kids excel during their school years is ‘phoning in sick’. They could get an A in phoning in sick and a diploma in low self-esteem. Most kids strive to learn math and grammar. Autistic children strive to make themselves invisible. But, waiting lists for special schools have queues so long there are Stone age families at the front, which means endless lobbying and pleading with the local council to meet the obligations of your child’s educational statement. I filled in forests of forms and saw squadrons of educational psychologists, most of whom look down their noses for a living. The technical term for this process is ‘being passed from pillar to post’.
Linda: Where is he on the spectrum?
Kathy: Well, just to be clear, autism is often called an “extreme form of maleness”. Of course, there are autistic females, but it’s about one in every five people. And, one in every 68 people is now deemed to be on the spectrum. There’s a lot of undiagnosed autistic people out there! Engineers, computer programmers, scientists, mathematicians, artists etc – and wouldn’t life be dull without them? Autistic people are the garlic in life’s salad. Jules is a savant – his memory for names and numbers is like a computer. He knows every match point of every game of tennis ever played. Autistic people are also very obsessive. My only tip to parents of autistic kids is to find out what they’re interested in and then encourage it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Amazonian moth wing fluctuations, Tibetan nose fluting – whatever! As you never know where it will lead them.
Linda: You have said sex for people with challenging medical conditions is a taboo subject. Why do you think this is?
Kathy: Well, firstly, when it comes to sex we all have special needs, right? But the heartbreaking aspect is this – the only thing a parent really wants for their child, is that they find love. Since puberty kicked in, he attempted everything to attract girls … Well, everything bar smothering himself in cupcake icing and sauntering through town holding a placard saying, ‘Free Designer Shoes!’ … But to females his own age, he just proved to be too exotic. Jules might as well have been a sherbet-winged flamingo flying down the high street. Girls he met tended to act as though he’d just been beamed down from Planet Weird and had lost his guide book to understanding earthlings. Years of endless rejection by girls meant that my son’s self-esteem was limbo-low. The reason I wrote Best Laid Plans is to encourage women to think outside the neuro-typical box. Jules is the world’s best boyfriend – devoted, funny, charming, adoring, loving and original. (So, I am told by his girlfriends.)
Linda: Jules’ acting success is a wonderful achievement how did you feel when he got his first break?
Kathy: Despite the fact that Autistic people are often so intelligent – I describe my own son as Wikipedia with a pulse – less that 15% of autistic people are in the workforce, which is a much lower inclusion rate than other disabilities. Why? Well, as I said earlier, autistic people have no filter – they say whatever they’re thinking. Asking my son to tell the truth is like asking a hemophiliac for a pint of blood. His honesty means that, socially, I perspire more than a Russian weightlifter taking a drugs test.
But job-hunting proved the greatest laxative known to parental kind. Autistic people have a tangential, lateral, literal logic which is truly original. But when my son was trying to find work, potential employers often made him feel as though he should get his DNA steam-cleaned. The endless knockbacks meant I soon needed a microscope to locate my kid’s confidence. Why did every potential boss seem to have Loveable-Genius filters on their glasses? An official at the Job Centre then told me that it was hard enough to find work for ‘normal’ young people. Apparently autistic teens are just to be tossed onto the scrapheap of life.
Just when I had a sinking feeling that would make HMS Titanic look buoyant- my son told me he wanted to study acting. I was dubious. Was it possible to put the artistic into autistic? But I enrolled him on a course. After graduating he was cast to play an autistic character in BBC medical drama Holby City. As you know, it’s been a huge success and Julius’ sympathetic portrayal of Jason is doing more to take the stigma out of autism than a hundred dry documentaries.
So, as I mentioned earlier in this chat, that’s my only advice for parents of autistic children is to feed their passions as you never know where it will lead. And to employers? ‘Normal’ is just the setting on a washing machine. Take a risk and think outside the neuro-typical box. Autism is called a spectrum because that’s exactly what autistic people add – colour.
See Kathy Lette at the Exchange Theatre in Twickenham on 8th March.