As well as being a comedy romance, I do hope The Boy Who Fell to Earth shines a light into the world of autism and helps us all to be a little more understanding of people who are different.
New research, published in the Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine this month, suggests that over half of all teenagers with an autism spectrum disorder are bullied at school, compared with an estimated 11 per cent of children in the general population. It also reveals that the problem is largely ignored. This certainly chimes with my experiences. 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.
One grey, rainy London day 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. ‘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.
Venturing out of the house when you have special needs can feel as hazardous as Scott leaving his Arctic base camp. It’s no wonder that the hardest thing for parents like me is to stop mollycoddling. All through his teens, I would never let my son leave home without a list of instructions longer than War And Peace and enough supplies in his backpack to set up a comfortable wilderness homestead. I was so overprotective that my friends and family would often joke that they couldn’t believe I’d ever let my son out – out of my womb, that is.
Even now, whenever my darling young man walks out the door, you’d think he was emigrating. The fuss, the worry, the long hugs and heart-felt goodbyes. But how will you ever know if your child can cope in the outside world, if you never let him out into it? Still, when I read about the horrific fates that have befallen other young men with Aspergers, the tragic death of the Steven Simpson, who had his genitals set on fire at his 18th birthday; or the autistic boy known as ZH who, in 2008, was falsely imprisoned and shackled by the police for jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed, and other horror stories, my paranoia seems justified. After my son was mugged at knife point aged 14, I read this comment from a police officer in the paper: ‘People with special needs are routinely targeted. I’m afraid, it’s the price of disability.’
If this is the price of being born ‘differently abled’ then the price is way too high.
Without doubt, my son is the most interesting, unique, brave and beautiful person I have ever met. Although the novel is not based on him, he did inspire every word. I hope that The Boy Who Fell To Earth, as well as giving a lot of laughter, helps to de-stigmatise the condition of aspergers, helping people on the autistic spectrum to be accepted into mainstream society. With understanding, they could contribute to society in the most interesting ways.