Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Raising Cubby: Life with Asperger's

John Elder Robison has Asperger’s. So does his son, Cubby.  Robison – who has authored two books on how he turned his “disorder” (read: difference) into a pillar of strength – was determined that his own son would grow up with a positive self-concept and that he never would be forced to forfeit his special traits and curiosities. Robison’s new book, Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives, is not just another guidebook for parents of children with special needs. There’s a whole lot of father-son mischief too. And at Saturday’s Writersfest event, there was also a little reminiscing about Robison’s days on the road with KISS and other legendary bands. 


Robison’s talk focused mostly on the mischief. Stories about Cubby finding his way into nuclear plants and naval ship control rooms had the audience in stitches – “My son Cubby is a shareholder. He would like a tour, please and thanks.” The story about fixing and flaunting Chairman Mao’s last Mercedes limo was also priceless.


There were discussions aplenty about what must be done to improve life and career outcomes for those on the autism spectrum. There were many parents of autistic children in the audience, and several rose during the question period to thank Robison for giving them hope.


Robison’s main point: like most young people, those ‘on the spectrum’ are seeking a solid education, a rewarding career with the possibility for advancement, and fulfilling relationships. For Robison, this last one – “I went and got me a wife” – is the most important. His tone is characteristic of many people with Asperger’s I have encountered – straightforward without a hint of sarcasm: “getting a girlfriend is more important than getting a job.” The theory is quite simple: become “choose-able” to potential romantic partners. Parents and peers can provide kids like Cubby a great deal of useful practical advice for becoming “choose-able” [and certainly one does not need to be on the spectrum to benefit from social skills coaching]]. Instead of saying, “you’re autistic so it’s expected that you’ll have no friends,” we can say, “try doing X instead of Y, and folks on the playground won’t make fun of you.” It’s about trial and error, and a healthy dose of patience and creativity.


But before all that can happen, society must recognize the value and worth of autistic individuals’ skills and talents. It is interesting to note that parents in the audience asked questions about how to make their kid “choose-able” for [read: successful at conforming to] the job market. Yet, Robison placed primary emphasis on interpersonal relationships and dating. This reminded me of a recent class with Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz at the University of Ottawa, wherein we discussed how too often clinicians fail to consider how one’s condition/difference/delays/disability will impact relationships and sexuality. 


More than once did Robison declare, “Being autistic saved me.” How so? At one level, being autistic “protected” him from being affected by abuse and trauma – obliviousness as a coping mechanism. But more importantly, his autism leads him to think differently than others, to solve problems with cognitive patterns unique to him – and all of this boded well for his career as an electronics and music wiz, author, and father. As he put it, “each of us must find what is special about us.” And parents, teachers, youth workers and the like can help in this process by giving autistic kids a range of experiences so they can assess their strengths and interests. This means we need a shift from obsessive pathologizing to a focus on exposing autistic youth to the possibilities that await them.


Whereas today’s youth are ascribed a psychopathological label early on, Robison was diagnosed at age 40. We don’t yet know the effects of living with such a label throughout one’s formative years, but we’re about to find out. As a generation of autistic youth enter early adulthood and seek their first jobs and serious relationships, now is the time for the sort of productive, mature, communal, yet amicable discussion proposed in Raising Cubby. Robison’s talk laid the groundwork for significant progress, and it’s no surprise he has been advising top research institutions and government agencies on better conceptualizing and serving those on the spectrum. I feel privileged to benefit from his lucid recommendations and contagious optimism, as well.