Author and mother Kathy Lette kept her child’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome a secret from her adoring fans and the public so she could protect him
For many years London-based author Kathy Lette was perhaps best recognised as the quick witted, champagne swilling, outrageously successful Aussie ex-pat with a bevy of famous friends. It was not unusual to see her in social pages hob-nobbing with Hugh Jackman and even the Queen. Yet behind the lashings of dazzling red lipstick and neck-breaking high heels was a mum struggling to come to terms with, and living with her child’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome – a secret she kept from her adoring fans and the public until her son Julius was 21, simply so she could protect him.
Now she is the poster mum for the autism spectrum disorder and visitied Australia as a guest speaker for the AEIOU Foundation.
“It was a relief to come out about Jules’ condition. But basically, when parenting a child with Asperger’s it’s best to just strap a shock absorber to your brain. Parents are constantly tip-toeing through a social minefield. You never know when you will touch a trip wire,” Lette tells me from London. “All mothers tend to put their children first, but the mother of a special needs child tends to go into Martyr Mode. It’s very easy to let your own life dwindle to a speck. But I don’t think this is healthy. I’m a great believer in grabbing joy wherever you can. Which is why I’m often found swinging from a chandelier, champers in hand, loudly laughing at life.
“When a mother is told that her child has special needs her guilt gland throbs. Was it something I ate whilst pregnant? Soft cheese? Sushi? Was it something I should have drunk – like puréed beetroot? Or maybe I ate too much? I hadn’t just been eating for two, I’d been eating for Pavarotti and his extended families. If only I’d feng shui-ed my aura in yogalates classes chanting to whale music like Gwyneth Paltrow and Organic Co.
“For years I trekked here, there and everywhere, in the endless search for experts. My son had so many tests; he must have thought he was being drafted into the elite moon mission astronaut program. I tried everything from cranial massage to karma maintenance and other areas of scientific expertise based on medical ideology that have been rigorously and methodically proven by Goldie Hawn and other well-known academics. (I hate to think how many doctors’ children I have now put through university.) Finally, many experts, tests and schools later, my son was re-diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
“Now I want to de-stigmatize the condition of Asperger’s. While Asperger’s is characterized by an inability to read social situations, plus obsessive, compulsive behaviour, it also often indicates above-average intelligence. It is well-known that creativity is associated with a variety of cognitive disorders. H.G. Wells was so eccentric he had only one school friend. Albert Einstein took a job in a patent office because he was too disruptive to work in a university. Isaac Newton was able to work without a break for three days but couldn’t hold a conversation.
“Experts now believe that Mozart, Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Orwell, Charles de Gaulle, Thomas Jefferson, Enoch Powell, even Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy and many famous composers and other artists were on the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s may not contribute in conventional terms but that doesn’t make them less valuable and it’s up to us to help them flourish, starting with stamping out the bigotry that excludes people with disabilities from mainstream life.
“My own vivid, original, brilliant boy is now volunteering at the Old Vic theatre and taking an acting course. With his encyclopaedic knowledge of sports (he’s Wikipedia with a pulse) he would like to become the world’s quirkiest sports commentator. With encouragement, love and support, these unique individuals can fulfil their exceptional potential.”
Find out more about Kathy Lette’s experience of raising a son with Asperger’s in her book The Boy Who Fell to Earth (Random House) out now.