My first encounter with autism, or at least the first encounter I was conscious of, was twenty years ago. It was at a family gathering to celebrate my engagement to James, hosted by my cousin and bridesmaid, Pippa, at her house in Bondi.
I was sipping champagne in the backyard, decked out in my Sunday best and feeling pretty pleased with myself, when a fountain gushed over me from nowhere. I turned to see a small boy standing on the neighbour’s high paling fence, peeing. Fortunately his aim was excellent—the stream formed a perfect crescent over my head and I didn’t even get splashed. What struck me most about this boy, however, was his impassive expression; there was no mischief or malice in his eyes.
‘That’s our neighbours’ son. He’s autistic,’ my cousin explained in a quiet voice.
This memory came rushing back to me while reading Chloe Maxwell’s new memoir Living with Max, in a scene where her son, Max, decides to take a leak off the top of a shopping complex play gym. The kids below in the play gym aren’t as lucky as I was, and receive an unexpected shower. Once again, there’s no malice intended—Max wants to pee and the play gym seems as good a place as any. Kids with autism are rarely willfully naughty, but, that doesn’t mean they can’t embarrass the hell out of their parents sometimes!
Living with Max tells an autism story that will be familiar to many —the first niggling doubts, the months of denial, the gut-wrenching diagnosis, and then finally, the re-emergence of hope as a couple discovers that raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder offers gifts as well as challenges.
What makes the Maxwell/Rogers journey so remarkable–and I’d argue a lot more difficult— is that this pair were forced to face their demons under the public’s unrelenting gaze.
It first appearance it would seem that Maxwell—gorgeous model, TV personality and WAG of football star Matt Rogers—had the perfect life before Max was born. Our author quickly dispenses with those illusions. We hear all about her turbulent teenage years, family estrangements, unhealthy over-reliance on alcohol to cope with the demands of live television, and chequered love life before her ‘prince’ arrived. Not long before Max’s birth the couple are floored by the tragic and premature loss of Steve, Matt’s football legend dad, only a few years after Matt’s mum, Carol had died of cancer.
Enough it would seem, without adding a ‘lifelong developmental disorder’ into the mix. Unfortunately autism doesn’t tend to pick and choose its targets.
Very early on in the preface Chloe warns:
In know that in reading this book, many who are close to me will feel old wounds begin to open again.
It’s true there’s no smoothing of rough edges in this book, no attempt to paint all the players in the most favourable light. Chloe is, however, far the hardest on herself. I know she’s since received some flak from the Self-Righteous Mum Brigade for the following revelation, which occurs around the time of diagnosis, during one of Max’s fierce tantrums:
He ran again towards the road and the cars. A tiny but terrible part of me was hoping he would be run over and that would be it. I was shocked at myself for thinking such a thing: at one and the same time I felt completely helpless and at the end of my tether.
Well sorry, I had those thoughts too—fleeting, but all the same real—the irrational brain snaps of a grieving mother seeking escape: escape from a dreadful reality and escape for her child from a future that, at least at the time, seems to offer no hope. Maxwell demonstrates amply throughout the book her dedication to her Max, her tolerance to his blows and meltdowns, her pride at his achievements through his early intervention program, her love. I dare you to read this book without crying.
When Chloe and Matt reach the right point of healing, they do what many of the best ASD parents do: they decide to give back, using their celebrity status and connections to raise funds for a new charity, 4 ASD Kids. Some of the proceeds from book sales will go to the charity.
I must admit to a small conflict of interest: Maxwell has revealed herself to be a fan of the Australian Autism Handbook. I’m so glad Seana and I were able to help her family at such a difficult time.
By telling her autism story with courage and honesty, Chloe Maxwell will go on to help many others. Living with Max is a cracking read.