Kathy Lette and her best laid plans

THE week before I spoke to Kathy Lette, the author was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Wollongong. Although she's previously received one from Southampton Solent University, this was from her hometown, so held special meaning for her. So much so she didn't want to take the graduation bonnet off, she said, ultimately requiring her sisters to stage an intervention.

Although Lette's been living in the UK for almost three decades, she retains a sense of unabashed irreverence. It's something she enjoys about Australian culture, she says, the fact we're brimming with irony, humour and optimism, but with some skepticism thrown in for good measure.

Dark humour is certainly a tool she wields throughout her latest novel, Best Laid Plans. The book is centred around Lucy (Lulu) a middle-aged English teacher and divorced mother to Merlin, a highly intelligent but socially awkward young autistic man.

Merlin's obsessed with sex and desperate to lose his virginity, so the book opens with Lulu on the hunt for a prostitute to help her son celebrate his 21st birthday in style.

I laughed out loud when she's arrested after propositioning an undercover cop, and Lulu and Merlin's exploits go from there; with Lette jamming as many (equally funny and farcical) encounters into their tale as possible.

Lette draws heavily on her own experience in her work, something which started with her debut novel, Puberty Blues, co-written in 1979.

She didn't however, talk or write publicly about her son Jules' autism until he turned 21 and - only then - did so with his permission, because she did not want to invade his privacy.

According to Lette, spending time with Jules (like Merlin) keeps life interesting as you never know what they're going to say or do. "There is no filter," she said.

As the parent of a child with autism, Lette suggests, it's important to laugh as much as possible, which she likens to "strapping a shock absorber to the brain".

As Lulu puts it, "mothering a child with autism tends to recalibrate one's view of normal."

It's not all laughs however and this is reflected in some confronting scenes in the book through Merlin's occasional sense of hopelessness and self-loathing. The very-trusting young man not only struggles to find love, but also a job and sense of independence.

Lette notes it's rare to talk about autism in older children or adults, however according to Autism Spectrum Australia, about one in every 100 adults living in households in the UK and Australia meets the diagnostic criteria for autism.

But shining a light on the special qualities and abilities of children, young people and adults who are different, is something Lette's passionate about, quipping "They're the garlic in life's salad."

Lette believes life would be boring if we were all too similar, "It would be a case of the bland leading the bland," she said.

Indeed, she relayed a story about an autistic scientist who, when asked a question about his social skills and being 'on the spectrum', suggested it's others who are weird - those afraid to say what they think and those who worry too much about the perceptions of others.

It's something she does less now, Lette said, in terms of about worrying what others think. "The change comes on turning 50. You stop stressing about all of those kinds of things."

Best Laid Plans by Kathy Lette, RRP $32.99, published in Australia by Penguin Random House is now available.

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