Interview with John Williams: Parent of a Child with Autism, Author of the Blog and New Comedy Show ‘My Son’s Not Rainman’
“ ‘My Son’s Not Rainman’ is a new show for 2013 from comedian John Williams. It’s a show about finding the positive in everything, from the joy and wonder of the Special School Disco to the unadulterated thrill of getting the front seat on the Docklands Light Railway. Ultimately, it’s just an uplifting tale about what it really means to be different.”
John is a dad.
He’s also a comedian (Laughing Horse New Act of the Year Finalist, Jokers’ Joker of the Year). He trained at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama until they chucked him out.
This is his first solo show, and the blog is the first thing he has written since leaving school far too many years ago.
This story couldn’t be told without The Boy.
He’s the autistic one.
He’s the most amazing, frustrating, contradictory boy in the world.
He has never drawn a charcoal sketch of the London skyline or memorised a train timetable.
I went to see John’s show earlier this month and https://leilajameel.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/my-sons-not-rainman-is-laughing-about-being-different-a-good-thing/wrote a glowing review.
I was impressed by John’s commitment to challenging people’s perception of what is ‘normal’ and also the stereotypical view of autism. He skilfully uses humour to break down awkward barriers that make it hard to talk about disability and being different.
John has kindly agreed to do a follow-on interview for ‘The Transparent Psychologist’. So, here goes!
LJ – Leila Jameel
JW – John Williams
Blogger and Comedian
LJ: John, thanks for agreeing to talk to me! Tell me, why did you decide to start the blog and then the comedy show?
JW: For a long time I wanted to try to find a way to share with people what it’s like bringing up a child who’s different. I wanted people to be more accepting of those with autism, and I became increasingly frustrated that some of the more challenging behaviours that can be so prevalent are never talked about. My hope was that if I could find a way to share our story people might become more accepting in the future. And I wanted to dispel the myth that life with a child with additional needs is always grey. My son brings light into my world. We laugh and joke a great deal. Ours is a happy life, even if a little unconventional at times!
LJ: Do you think that using humour makes it easier to talk about difficult things?
JW: I guess so – it certainly makes stuff more accessible. I’m always aware that the flip-side is there’s a danger that it’s then seen as mocking or treating a subject flippantly – it’s a fine balance as you mentioned in your review of my show, and it’s one that makes me nervous all the time.
LJ: How do you decide which bits of material will or won’t work?
JW: The main test is if it makes me laugh. And after that it’s just trying it out on an audience to see if they agree. The previews for the show have been really useful for that. With the blogs, it’s different. I so often sit down to write a blog about “x” and then suddenly I find I’ve written about something completely different. There’s less pressure to be funny with the blog too!
LJ: Have you written any jokes that you thought maybe push the boundaries too far?
JW: I’d say no. I don’t really write jokes in the conventional sense – everything in the show is based on an event that has happened, and that’s where the humour comes from. In many ways it’s a collection of funny stories rather than a series of jokes. I use my son as the guide. If I thought there was anything in the show that he would one day be uncomfortable with, then I’d stop saying it immediately.
LJ: What is your favourite story from your show?
JW: Without giving too much away, it’s probably the story of the special school disco. People talk about the rollercoaster of emotions from the show – and I think that afternoon at the disco sums it up better than most. It was one of the most joyful things I’ve ever witnessed, only tinged with regret that not everybody in the world gets to share in it. The world would be a much better place in lots of ways if more people experienced the delights of a special school disco!
LJ: So what are your plans for both the blog and the comedy show?
JW: I don’t know really – both have taken off far more than I ever thought they would, and I’m a little blown away by it all. It would be nice to tour the show in some way, but I’m mindful of childcare and lots of other issues. Any plans for the future will always involve my son coming first, but I’d love to continue sharing our story in whatever way works for us.
LJ: You are patron of a charity ‘Expresscic.org.uk’ – can you tell us what they do?
JW: I met Annette and Tracey at one of my comedy nights – they are two mums of children with autism based in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. Their aim is set up a ‘hub’ or cafe for young people on the autistic spectrum and their families. A place to talk, share and laugh, all created with sensory issues in mind. I loved the idea and have done a couple of fundraising shows with some other comedian friends to help out. They asked me to become their patron, and I was delighted – they work very hard and deserve every success. It would be great to imagine their plans for Kingston rolled out across the country.
Parent of The Boy
LJ: What did you think/feel when your son was first diagnosed with autism? How much did you know about it beforehand, and how much support were you offered?
JW: I suppose it was relief in the end. We knew something was wrong, but in many ways my son doesn’t fit the classic diagnosis for autism at all. There are times now when I question his diagnosis, I don’t know if that’s something all parents go through. In terms of support, there was none. You got the label and that was it. However, there was a local National Autistic Society (http://www.autism.org.uk) support worker who was really helpful. This was some years ago now, and I hope things have changed for the better now.
LJ: How has having a son with autism affected your life?
JW: With or without autism, he has brought joy and light and wonder into my world. I am an infinitely better person for having him in my life. It’s a bit of a cliché, but the day I became a parent is the day I realised what it really means to be alive.
LJ: What advice would you give parents out there whose child has just received a diagnosis?
JW: I don’t know if I can offer any – I’m just a bloke sorting through it like everyone else. Google is your friend, but it’s very much your enemy too. There are some weird and wonderful resources and claims made out there, so choose carefully who or what you listen to! I don’t want to come across as trite by saying things will get better, as for some it does and some it doesn’t. All I can say is for each day try to find the joy. There will be some days where it’s harder to find than others, but it will be there.
LJ: I get the feeling that seeing the funny side has helped you through some difficult times…?
JW: I didn’t always see the positive, let’s put it like that… I think over the years I’ve realised that my being positive has a huge impact on my son. I suppose I’m his role model in this, and I can either choose to be consumed by regret and sadness or we can both decide to live each day with fun and happiness.
LJ: Many parents of children with autism are anxious about their child’s future. What worries you the most?
JW: The horror stories of service for adults on the autistic spectrum. The lack of support available from the age of 18 is a real concern, and although I think there have been some improvements, there is still a huge deficit. Although getting the right education for my son has been a battles at times, adulthood opens up a whole new battleground – employment, housing, social care, the list goes on. I suppose the main worry is what will happen if/when I am no longer around – I don’t think that ever goes away.
LJ: Do you think labels such as ‘autism’ are helpful in explaining someone’s difficulties, or a dangerous reflection of our inability to accept people and behaviours that are different?
JW: I do understand the need for labels, but sometimes we can’t lump everything into a nice, neat group and pigeonhole people. First and foremost my son is a person. A unique person with his own identity, needs, wants and wishes – as is every other person with autism. If we put ‘everybody who has blue eyes’ into a group, we wouldn’t expect them to interact and behave in the same way as we seem to do with those with autism. Sometimes it feels like doctors and physicians become so wrapped up in labels and expected behaviour traits that they forget to look at the person in front of them as just that. A person. A unique individual. Labels are useful for getting the right support – statementing for schools, disability living allowance and so on. But so many times concerns or worries about my son have been dismissed with the words “it’s because he’s autistic”. He isn’t. It won’t define him. He’s an individual with autism. There’s a huge difference
LJ: What is the hardest thing about having a son with autism?
JW: Knowing I can never climb inside him and see the world the way he sees it, even for just a moment. And then maybe I’d be better able to support him. But everything is relative. My son has speech, he can read, laugh and joke. There are so many with autism who are non-verbal, or more severe than he is. Many times I’m reminded just how lucky we are.
LJ: Do you think there any pros to having autism?
JW: That question will never be for me to answer, it will always be for my son. There isn’t a defining line where he ends and the autism begins. Does he have a sense of humour because of his autism or in spite of it? I’ll never know which aspects of his personality are ‘him’ and which are ‘autism’. I do really hope that one day he can say Yes there are pros to this. At the moment, I’m not so sure.
LJ: Thank you for your frank and honest answers John! I wish you every success with the blog and show.
John’s blog – http://www.mysonsnotrainman.com/blog.html
Follow John on Twitter – @Autistic_Kid
John will be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 1 August – 25th August, and is planning more UK dates!