The actor Chris Vorster and his wife, Liza, have come a long way with their autistic son. They’ve changed their whole lifestyle to meet his needs and in return he’s made them see the world differently. Meet Leroux Vorster, who has an eye for detail, draws beautiful pictures, is mad about computer games and is funny to boot . . .
By Marie Opperman
The little blond boy, with eyes as blue as his dad’s, flings his arms around Chris Vorster’s neck and whispers in his ear. The only audible words are “twinkle toes”.
The man better known to South Africans as 7de Laan’s Ryno Lategan nods sagely and doesn’t elaborate on what his youngest son, Leroux (9), has said to him.
Leroux, wearing a brand-new red tracksuit top, is the one at centre stage today in the Vorsters’ Centurion home. He’s autistic and we’re here to find out how he, dad Chris, mom Liza and older brother Eben (11) manage to live in harmony.
Autistic children often struggle to communicate, don’t like change and live in a world of their own. Some don’t talk much and won’t allow themselves to be touched. All this can make family life extremely difficult.
Not so in the Vorster home. Once again, Leroux grabs his dad around the neck, presses his mouth to Chris’ ear and whispers a long, complex story. You can’t help but wonder: can this loving, chatty child really suffer from autism?
“Leroux is autistic but he’s also highly functional, which means he can go to school,” Chris explains. “His school, Unica, is aimed exclusively at autistic learners. There are only a few learners in a class and they progress at their own pace. Leroux is coming to grips with the alphabet.”
He and Liza aren’t talking about Leroux because they want sympathy, says Chris. “As the experts say: his brain isn’t wired incorrectly, but differently. Autism may not be curable but it’s treatable and we’re happy to talk about it if people will listen.
“Leroux is weird and wonderful and I’m not afraid of weird. To tell the truth, I prefer it. He and I are quite similar; I was also a weird kid, not sociable at all. Like Leroux, I got on on my own and was always doing my own thing.
“Leroux lives in his own fantasy world and we fantasise about stuff together. We don’t talk about real life but about games, wars, enemies and the bad guys. I’m fascinated by his imagination. He has a unique way of seeing the world.”
Eben is also exceptional, Chris boasts. “He’s a model child. He’s brilliant. He’s an excellent swimmer too – he won three gold medals at the recent SA Schools championships.”
But Leroux is different. They knew this even before he was diagnosed . . .
His development didn’t follow the usual baby milestones, says Liza, who used to teach at a primary school before giving it up to spend more time with her kids. “He didn’t talk, he refused to eat certain foods and he’d scream when we were in unfamiliar places with lots of people.
“He was very angry and frustrated because he couldn’t communicate. When he was three, I took him to a neuro-paediatrician. ‘Why is he so angry?’ I wanted to know. That’s when Leroux was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a kind of autism.
“I immediately asked for information from ASA – Autism South Africa. Actually we were relieved he was just autistic – he could have had something far worse, like a terminal illness.”
At age seven, Leroux was diagnosed with classic autism. “Accepting something like this enables you to make rational decisions about how to handle it,” says Chris.
Liza adds: “We immediately decided to accept it and deal with it. It’s all very well to have hopes and ideals but you just end up putting pressure on yourself and your child to develop in a certain way.”
Since then, Leroux’s skills and selfconfidence have improved markedly. “Even though we’re Afrikaans, he likes speaking English because he finds the pronunciation easier,” says Chris. “TV also plays a huge role in his development. He copies what he hears and that helps to improve his speech.”
Liza says they went to great trouble to get to know him. “We discovered that Leroux does recognise emotion – just in a different way than we do. He’s learnt to ‘read’ a look in our eyes and then ask us about it. And he’s quick to notice different expressions, like when we feel impatient, tired or sad.
“We stick to our routines with military precision, otherwise Leroux gets anxious. He couldn’t understand why I kept leaving the kitchen light on for Chris. After all, bedtime signals lights out. For weeks he’d ask why the light was still on. And every time I’d explain it’s so his dad could find his way when he got back from the gym.”
Just taking Leroux to a Wimpy was a long, drawn-out process, says Liza. “He got used to it only when we’d been about 20 times, always parking in the same place and sitting at the same table. We did it with love because we love him.
“Leroux follows the same routine every day. Before school he watches TV, runs and jumps around and pretends to shoot the baddies with his imaginary gun.”
Chris and Liza each have a fixed role in the family. “I’m the fun guy and Liza takes care of discipline,” says Chris. “Leroux enriches our lives. He has a wonderful sense of humour and he sees things in incredible detail. He’s strong visually and aurally and can memorise long bits of text from movies and quote them verbatim, much to the delight of film buffs. But for him, ordinary life is strange and difficult to understand.”
Autistic children can easily become anxious, so Leroux takes medication to calm him down. “We don’t wonder what caused the autism,” Liza says. “It’s no one’s fault. I’m the best mother I can be today and I’ll keep being the best mother I can be tomorrow.”
To fit in with Leroux, the family has had to make some serious adjustments. “His life is just about him,” says Chris. “We know what keeps him happy and we stick to the recipe.
“Fortunately Eben handles it well. He gets ‘Eben attention’ and his brother gets ‘Leroux attention’. When we’re all together, we form a united front.
“When Eben’s friends come round, Leroux tags along after them and watches what they’re doing. He doesn’t insist on taking part. Eben’s friends are very patient.”
“Eben understands his brother’s behaviour isn’t always socially acceptable and that he does his own thing,” Liza says. “He handles him well. The other day Leroux was ungrateful for a game Chris brought him and Eben explained he’d hurt his daddy’s feelings. Eben wrote an apology letter and Leroux copied it.”
Because Leroux gets anxious in strange places or new situations the family spends holidays in the same spot, Stilbaai, every year. “Even then he’s irritable for the first two days,” Chris says.
They also frequently go hiking in the Drakensberg. “Leroux isn’t crazy about nature, but he’s used to going to the mountains for a walk – as long as the grass isn’t long enough to touch his legs.
“He doesn’t like visiting unfamiliar people. Luckily I don’t either and we’re comfortable at home. When we visit friends we take toys along and he’s happy to play quietly. Our friends love him.”
Because the dark upsets him, they bought a generator to keep Leroux calm during the electricity outages, Liza says.
“The four TVs in the house have to be on all the time. But we don’t watch 7de Laan, because it’s on during bath and homework time. When Leroux does see his dad on TV he laughs and pokes fun at him.
“We broke through the inside walls of the living area so he has place to run when he feels tense. Now he can run through the house, out through the patio door and around the swimming pool. He’ll do it 50 times in a row while jumping and pretending to shoot. If he doesn’t, he gets frustrated and restless.
“When Leroux is angry and I don’t have the strength to cope, Chris defuses the situation with the patience of a sphinx. He tickles him or wrestles with him. We watch out for each other and stand in for one another when we reach saturation point. You have to have a strong marriage and a good relationship to survive this kind of challenge – and you need to laugh a lot!”
The Vorsters don’t have family nearby who can help out, so a domestic worker looks after the children when they go out. “But we don’t need time away from our children; we steal time and special moments whenever we want and the children don’t even notice.”
Chris and Liza hope Leroux will one day be able to care for himself. “It’s important that he learns to read because that will change and enrich his life,” Liza says. “We’d be happy if he could drive a car and maybe work. Perhaps he will live in a flat on our property and do computer work.”
Do they have advice for parents of autistic children? “We’d rather not give advice, because every child is different, whether they have autism or not. We just want our children to be happy and feel safe in our family. From that point on, anything is possible,” Liza says.
“We don’t wake up every morning and think: another day with our autistic son. Leroux demands a different approach but we see it as enriching, a chance to see the world in a unique light.”
On the desk in Leroux’s room is a pile of pictures he drew himself. Most are war scenes, all drawn in the finest detail. Helicopters, warships, soldiers, bullets, bombs – all are perfect.
The walls in Chris’s study are also papered with Leroux’s artwork. And here the boy himself is glued to a computer, playing war games. He takes no notice of us. He’s perfectly happy in his own special world.