The Loch Ness Monster isn’t real. Dinosaurs are extinct. And no, kids can’t fly. That’s the sort of thing we all got from our parents. Every time we heard something fun and imaginative, it seemed like Mom or Dad was there to pop our balloon.
What if that didn’t happen?What if Dad agreed with every childhood fantasy and offered to go hunt Nessie in a boat, with a harpoon? That’s exactly what I decided to do when I got a shot at parenthood with a six-pound tyke I named Cubby.When my little boy began asking questions, I kept my mind open to the possibilities and seized every fun and interesting opportunity that came our way. We hunted dinosaurs, talked to penguins, and drove freight trains and tugboats all over New England. I told him stories about nuclear horses, pine demons, and dragons.We even went cruising in Chairman Mao’s Mercedes-Benz limousine.
As I showed Cubby time and again, things are not always as they seem. That moving speck in the sky . . . it might be an airplane. But it could also be a bird. It might even be a giant flying lizard, far, far away. Cubby and I talked about the world as it was, and as we imagined it. My son learned to question what he saw and what people told him. He became his own person—an independent thinker—at a very early age.
Cubby and I both have Asperger’s syndrome—a form of autism. Some call autism a different way of being, and the way I raised Cubby might be the ultimate embodiment of that. We think differently, we act differently, and we raise kids differently. The proof is in my new book, Raising Cubby, which tells the story of how I went about being a dad. I’m willing to bet it’s very different from any other parenting memoirs you’ve read.
Of course, the book tells Cubby’s story too. By the time he was seventeen my son had parlayed his thinking skills into what one scientist called “a post-doctoral understanding of the physics of explosives.” He dropped out of high school because the courses weren’t interesting, and enrolled in college where he could study chemistry. A few months later, Cubby’s love of science led to a visit from the ATF after video of his experiments attracted unfavorable attention online. As they were carrying chemicals out of his lab, the Federal agent in charge turned to me and said, “Mister Robison, the U.S. government has no criminal interest in your son.We just want to clean this up and make it safe. Somewhere in the U.S., every year, we find a Boy Scout genius with a chemistry set, and this is your year.”
If only it had ended there. Unfortunately, a publicity-hungry prosecutor saw a chance to make a name for herself, saving the community from a so-called terrorist, even though the only terrorist was the one she’d dreamt up in her mind. Before long, Cubby had been charged with multiple felonies and faced up to sixty years in prison when, as far as I could see, his only “crimes” had been inquisitiveness and not thinking through how his actions might appear to others. The good news is that when Cubby’s case went to trial, the community rallied round him, and the courtroom overflowed with friends and supporters. Their support buoyed us through five long days of trial, after which my son walked out of the courthouse with his head held high and a bright future ahead.
I hope Raising Cubby will inspire students to see that there are many paths to success, and that oddball traits or interests might in fact lead to our best opportunities. I also hope it will inspire communities to embrace their misfits and understand how much they have to offer. For a very long time, neither Cubby nor I ever quite fit in.We dealt with other people in odd ways, had interests that verged on obsession, and we often didn’t have a clue how others perceived us. This is the story of how each of us found his place in the world, how we came to see ourselves as different rather than defective, and of how we discovered that even those of us on the autism spectrum have something unique to offer.
John Elder Robinson is the author of two previous books, Look Me in the Eye and Be Different, and he lectures widely on autism and neurological differences. An adjunct professor at Elms College, he also serves on committees and review boards for the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and Autism Speaks. A machinery enthusiast and avid photographer, John lives in Amherst with his family, animals, and machines.
Random House is currently giving away free galley copies of John Elder Robinson’s forthcoming Raising Cubby. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to place your request.