Kathy Lette talks for the first time about the painful day she was told her son, Julius, had Asperger's and how she's coped with his eccentric view of life and his dark days.
Kathy Lette sat in stunned silence in a London doctor's office as he told her that her son, Julius Robertson, then just three, suffered from a developmental disorder.
"I remember the paediatrician's voice being all light and falsely cheery, which was how I knew something was seriously wrong," recalls Kathy, London-based author, mother of two and wife of human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.
"The word 'autism' slid into me like the cold, sharp edge of a knife. This is a diagnosis that pulls you into the riptide and drags you down into the dark. The doctor had reduced him to a black and white term — autism. But, to me, Jules was full of the most vibrant colours."
Kathy Lette, 53-year-old veteran of a thousand interviews, is a bundle of jangled nerves. Normally, the effervescent princess of pun, co-author of the iconic '70s novel Puberty Blues, takes questioning in her stilettoed stride, all part of the business of being an internationally successful writer published in 120 countries.
Yet today is different. Today, Kathy is doing something she has never done before. Today, she is talking about her relationship with her son, Julius, now 21, who has lived his life with Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder closely associated with high-functioning autism.
She is also talking about her new book, The Boy Who Fell To Earth, on sale March 1, the sometimes funny, sometimes moving story of Merlin, a boy with Asperger's, and his mother, Lucy, who struggles to cope after her husband runs out.
The book is, as Kathy points out, a work of fiction, not a memoir. Yet there is a lot of Julius in Merlin and a lot of humour, love and emotional truth in Kathy's writing.
Talking about her family is something Kathy has avoided over the years. Articles about her are littered with one-liners about feminism and double entendre, but her private life has remained off limits — until now.
The link between her latest work and her own life is inescapable. It is, after all, the reason she wrote the book.
"This is not the book that I intended to write," says Kathy. "It just came pouring out of my pen. And sometimes that happens. They say writing is the cheapest form of therapy.
"My son has Asperger's. I have never spoken about or mentioned that before in a public context. In the past, that was because he was still a child, but now he's 21 and he has read the book and he loves it, and he agrees with me that it could help people understand young people like him, which can only be a good thing.
"He says he loves being Aspergic because it makes him quirky and funny. It's an amazing condition and there are a lot of strengths that go with it. He has an incredible vocabulary and amazing numeracy skills, and a very idiosyncratic, eccentric view of life, which can be disarming and charming in its own way, but it also has its difficulties."
Asperger's syndrome is a developmental disorder that falls within the autism spectrum of disorders and is often characterised by good language skills but poor communication, a difficulty in forming friendships, repetitive behaviours and a childhood preference for playing alone or with older children or adults.
Many Aspergics talk in extensive detail about a narrow topic — subatomic particles or Brazilian stamps — yet often can't recount what happened during their day or understand subtlety, jokes or sarcasm.
"It's a little bit like raising a Martian who speaks Swahili at times because they don't read emotions very well," says Kathy.
"People with Asperger's have no filter and tend to say what they are thinking. Like the time my son asked his intimidating headmaster what he wrote on his driver's licence for hair colour, being completely bald? Or enquired of a leather-clad bikie if he'd ever noticed that his chin looked like upside-down testicles?"
Read more of this story in the March issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
For more information on Asperger's, visit www.asperger.asn.au.
Video: Helping autistic kids