Autism is a very serious topic. Just not tonight.
Nikki Osborne is an Australian actress, and a regular on comedy panels on Australian television. A mother to a child with autism, she also spends her time blogging and campaigning for autism awareness. Her belief is that sentiment being ‘it’s not just okay to be different, it’s f*%king refreshing’.
Recently, Nikki staged a one-woman show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival called On the Spectrum. Funny and intimate, the show is told from her point of view as a parent to a five-year old son with high-functioning autism.
Controversy blew up when Melbourne residents called for the show to be cancelled in advance of its debut, the subject deemed offensive to people with disabilities. Nikki insisted her intentions were honourable: she wished to break the silence around an important issue, particularly for other parents undergoing the same challenges as she has, and to bring them some light relief.
CATRIONA MITCHELL: Nikki, you say that you’ve always used a sense of humour as a tool to deal with the difficult times in your life. At what point did you realize that your sense of humour could be a gift for others, as well as a tool for your own use?
Since I can remember, my natural instinct has been not to sympathise with people who were hurt, but rather to cheer them up. I know there’s a place for cuddles and counseling. I’m not good at that though, and I find a much better approach is to make them laugh.
How did you feel when your son Teddy was first diagnosed with autism? What kind of emotional journey did this take you on?
I was absolutely heartbroken. I cried for days. I wanted a crystal ball to know that he was going to be okay because nobody can tell you that. What I can say now is that he’s more than okay, he’s actually really cool and I feel like a total dick for reacting the way I did at his diagnosis. That’s why I’m doing the show; to shine the light at the end of the tunnel to those at the start of it.
How has caring for a son with autism changed your life? What do your day-to-day responsibilities and challenges look like?
Most spectrum kids are delayed in their milestones because they’re busy focusing on other things (Einstein for example). So early intervention is about repeatedly engaging them in activities they naturally avoid, in order to prepare them for the expectations of society.
I took three years off work to do this full time. We couldn’t financially afford for me to do this, so I would holiday-let our home every weekend to subsidize my staying at home with him. Move out Friday and move home Sunday. It was hard and incredibly humbling. People see me in the socials, on TV and in magazines and think I’m a princess. Nah mate, I’m Cinder-fucking-rella.
You took a bold and brave step in creating On the Spectrum. Did it take a lot of courage to write about your experiences from a comic perspective, or was this something that came naturally? Did you laugh or cry when writing it?
Growing up in Queensland (Australia), you’re conditioned to not take life too seriously. Well my family was, anyway. My grandfather was cracking jokes on his death bed. When my Mum was diagnosed with CLL (Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia) we joked about how she got the best cancer. Lucky bitch. That’s just what Osbornes do. Laugh through adversity.
I was approached by the owner of ‘The Therapy Store’ (a leading provider of therapy products) as he’d seen my upbeat takes on autism on my Instagram. He then engaged me to write blogs for parents of newly diagnosed kids to cheer them the f*&k up. ‘On The Spectrum’ was a natural progression from the blogs I’d been engaged to write.
I wish my show existed for me five years ago.
Complaints declared that you were ‘inviting people to laugh at a child’s disability,’ and were exploiting your son’s story. How did you feel about these complaints?
What I’m proud of about my show is that people walk away from it with a positive view on autism. The stories and jokes are not about the disabilities but rather the abilities of those on the spectrum. Yes there are a few laughs at some of the traits, but there is absolutely nothing mean spirited in my show.
Do you see an ethical ‘grey area’ in sharing your story as a parent, in the sense that your son’s identity is clearly revealed but didn’t give his consent?
Yes there were a lot of concerns raised over my naming my son and his stories in my show. While I am no different to any other comedian who makes jokes about their kid, I am certainly under the microscope due to the term ‘spectrum’. Plus, anyone who hasn’t seen the show would interpret it as a beat up, and so my show would continually be misjudged out of context.
Nikki Osborne on stage
When he becomes a teenager, and is old enough to understand the content of the show, do you anticipate that Teddy will object to the fact that you made his story public? Do you worry about what he might feel (for instance that you were laughing at, not with him) and what this might do to your relationship?
I actually listened to the critics and by the end of my show run had changed a lot of the material to a collective of stories. So this show has now become bigger than our story. It’s everybody’s. So I do not pre-empt any drama from my son as a teen: I can now say with a clear conscience, it’s not about you.
Melbourne Comedy Festival refused to cancel your show, and all went ahead as planned. What kind of reactions did you get from your live audiences?
When I first announced the show, I copped a lot of blowback from autism advocates and yes, they petitioned to have my show shut down before it even saw the light of day. That wasn’t a nice feeling. It was assumed that my show would harm the autistic community.
Those who came to the show without bias absolutely loved it. Parents and therapists and young autistic adults were thrilled to have permission to have a laugh. After some shows I had parents approach me in tears as it’s the first time they’ve laughed in a long time, and had a refreshed perspective on their situation.
I had young autistic men shake my hand saying “you’ve nailed me, thank you”. I’m very proud about that. I’m proud that not only did my show make people laugh, it made a difference to their entire outlook.
At your performance you wore a white T-shirt with ‘adequate mother’ written across it in bold red letters. Would you have worn this on stage if not for the backlash that led up to the show’s debut?
I wore the ‘adequate mother’ shirt on stage as it’s what my Mum calls me – and I call her ‘useless Nana’. At the end of the day we are just mums, doing our best, and sometimes our best is only just adequate. There’s a saying: it only takes one good deed for a dad to be called a great dad, but it only takes one mistake for a mum to be called a bad mum. Interesting, isn’t it?!
Nikki Osborne performing in her ‘Adequate Mother’ T-shirt
Feature image of Nikki Osborne is by Jody Pachniuk.