My autistic son was branded a ‘retard’ at school. Now he’s an actor with a major BBC role, writes Kathy Lette.

When my autistic son was 9 he came home with a sign sticky-taped to his back saying, "Kick me I'm a retard." Tearing up, he stammered, "The kids call me a retard ... What is a retard?"

You might as well have ripped my heart out of my chest and stomped on it. Going to school now became his second favourite thing, after stubbing his toe repeatedly until it went gangrenous.

Although by the age of 8 Jules had an encyclopedic knowledge of The Beatles, Buddy Holly and Shakespeare, including most of Hamlet's soliloquies, the only subject at which he excelled in class became "phoning in sick". Being put on detention for misinterpreting homework and constantly belittled by classmates meant school became little more than a master class in low self-esteem.

By high school, while most students were striving to learn maths and grammar, Jules was striving to make himself invisible. Exiled to Social Siberia, his confidence was now so minuscule it could be detected only by the Hubble telescope.


Mothering a child with special needs gives you the same kind of ride a bucking bronco would give a cowgirl - with no saddle, reins or helmet. As you probably know, autism is a life-long neurological condition whose chief characteristics are an inability to socialise and communicate, chronic OCD and anxiety but also, often, an incredibly high IQ. My own son is Wikipedia with a pulse. With diagnostic hindsight we also now know that Van Gogh, Orwell, Einstein, Mozart and Steve Jobs were also on the autistic spectrum.

Despite these facts, fewer than 15 per cent of autistic people are in the workforce, which is a much lower inclusion rate than others who are differently abled. Why? Well, autistic people have no filter - they say whatever they're thinking. Asking my son to tell the truth is like asking a haemophiliac for a pint of blood. Conversing with an autistic kid in public is the greatest laxative known to motherkind.

Interviewer: What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?

Austistic kid: Honesty.

Interviewer: Honesty? I don't think honesty is a weakness.

Austistic kid: I don't give a stuff what you think.

Apologising for an autistic person's faux pas becomes part of a parent's daily routine. It's a default position. As soon as the phone rings or the doorbell buzzes, we immediately adopt the brace position.

But it's job-hunting that really brought religion into our lives - now we truly knew what it was like to be in hell. As one employer after another rejected Jules for being different, how I longed for a self-help book for social lepers. Condescending and often cruel, they made him feel he should get his DNA steam-cleaned. Although wackily bright and quirkily charming, the only future I could envisage for my Jules was living in a bedsit, on benefits.

These daily rejections are why it's vital to tell your special needs child that they really are special. There's no Owner's Manual for parents of autistic offspring but, in my view, it's imperative to find what they're good at and encourage it. It doesn't matter if it's moth wing fluctuations, igneous rock formations or Tibetan nose-fluting - because you never know what their obsession could lead to.

My own son wanted to study acting. I was dubious - how could someone with autism empathise with a character's complex emotional nuances? Yes, he knew more about most actors than their own mothers, but was it possible to put the artistic into autistic?

Building down my hopes, I reluctantly enrolled Jules in an acting course. Amazingly, to my eyes, he excelled in class productions - but I suspected I was blinded by my mum goggles. Yet soon after, he was cast in two short films and won an acting award. He then went for an audition for a major BBC medical drama called Holby City - and secured the part. Jules has been a semi-regular for a year and a half, playing to six million people a week. He gets stopped for autographs and has a fan page.

As he bathes in praise from BBC producers, cast and crew, I think back to those school bullies and occasionally allow myself a little moment of light gloating. But my main hope is that Julius' success will encourage other employers to think outside the neurotypical box and hire the "differently abled". We should stop forcing autistic people to act normal, and help them to become their best autistic selves by focusing on what they can do instead of what they can't.

For me, seeing my son finally thriving, well, it's better than winning the Pulitzer Prize. Nor could I have written a happier ending. Except it's not an ending, it's a beginning. And that's all autistic people need - a chance to shine.

What raising my son has taught me is that there is no such thing as normal and abnormal - just ordinary and extraordinary - and people on the autistic spectrum have a tangential, lateral, literal logic which makes them true originals. Autism is called a spectrum - because that's what they add: colour. And with the right encouragement and opportunity, autistic people could give back to society in the most inspiring ways.

My new comic novel, Best Laid Plans, explores the infuriating but often hilarious aspects of job hunting for the autistic. It also addresses the issue of sex and disability. In fact, you never see "differently abled" people depicted in a strongly sexual context. They're either pitied or inspirational.

My pithy tale, which I hope is not just witty but also poignant, examines a young autistic man's experiences of sex, dating, disability and navigating sexual and romantic intimacy - and the bumpy emotional ride endured by his devoted mum.

As well as having a good laugh along the way, I hope what the reader discovers is that when it comes to sex ... we all have special needs.

Best Laid Plans by Kathy Lette (Bantam, $37) is available now.