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July 17, 2013

"Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives"

By Joan Brunwasser

Pyrotechnics and explosives run in the family for us.As do tractors and trains.When I was a teen, my special interest was music and electronics, but that led to work with KISS and some pretty impressive explosives effects.My son took an interest in explosives as a teen,and he began creating and inventing explosive compounds.That led to a visit from the ATF and a most unpleasant experience with a vicious local prosecutor.


John by photo courtesy of the author
My guest today is author and autism advocate, John Elder Robison.  Welcome to OpEdNews, John.  Before you wrote your latest book, you had already written two books: Look Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger's [2008] and Be Different:   My Adventures with Asperger's and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families, and Teachers [2012] . Raising Cubby, A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives [2013] moves beyond your personal saga to  encompass your son and fatherhood. What compelled you to write this intensely personal story?

JER: I had written about growing up in Look Me in the Eye, and people asked how I did it.  They wanted to know exactly how I got a job, found a girlfriend, and did the other things I wrote about.  So I wrote Be Different, which is essentially a how-to guide to my success.  My hope was that any young person could translate my stories to his or her own life, and get benefit.

But that still left the parents of young kids.  And there are lots of them out there.  I wrote Raising Cubby to show another side of parenting kids who are different.  I wanted parents to see it's not all struggle, and kids all want to have fun!

I also wanted to share the story of the prosecutor's attack on my son, because people with autism and other differences are victimized in that way all too often.

book cover by courtesy of the author

JB: Let's give a little background for those of our readers who are not familiar with you or your  books. While you sensed that you were different from your classmates growing up, you didn't actually get diagnosed as having Asperger's until you were 40.  How did that work out? Was it helpful to know? How, if at all,  did it change things? Could you have used that piece of information a lot sooner?

JER: I grew up in the sixties, before things like Asperger's were recognized.  People just said I was lazy, or a bad kid.  Sure, I might have done better had I received compassion and support instead of threat and discipline but who knows?

I certainly knew I was different from the other kids by the way I was rejected and kept on the outside.  Yet I was determined to make it, and I did.  Learning about Asperger's when I was 40 did change my life by explaining my earlier social failures.  

For a kid knowing today, early detection surely can make a difference.  But for me, growing up in a less aware time, who can know...?

John and Cubby aka Jack by courtesy of the author

JB: Do you think that your own Asperger's made you miss the telltale signs that your son had it, too?  You mention the many similarities between the two of you.  What did you notice?

JER: First of all, you have to remember that I didn't learn about my own Asperger's till my son was in second grade.  And it took a while after that for me to begin looking for Asperger traits in him.

That said, I did notice he had the same sorts of social problems I remembered from my own childhood.  When I saw that, I didn't know "why" but I did give him my best advice and I was happy to see him succeed where I had failed.

In Look Me in the Eye, I wrote about discovering the need to make relevant responses. For example, when a kid came up to me and said, "Look at my new truck," I should not say, "I like helicopters."  I didn't learn that till age ten - at least - where typcial kids figure things like that out early.  When I saw my son make mistakes like that at age 4 or 5, I advised him based on my experience, and it worked.  He had more friends than I ever did.  I describe that process in detail in Raising Cubby.

JB: That you did. While we now have diagnoses for conditions that once had no name, that doesn't mean that our institutions deal with them very well. Take your public school system's methods of dealing with Cubby, for instance.  Can you talk about that a bit?

JER: If there is a hero in Raising Cubby it's the Montessori School.  My son floundered in public school but he absolutely thrived in Montessori.  I hoped our public schools were better since I was in them, but the weren't (at least in our case).

The public school people said the same things about my son that they said about me - lazy, won't work, acts up and won't apply himself.  It made me so mad I could not listen to them.  And in the end - like me - he dropped out.

Today he's doing fine and I am proud to serve on the advisory board of CSESA, the Department of Education's initiative to improve high school outcomes for people like Cubby and me.  I just wish the enlightenment had come a little sooner, in time for one of us at least . . .

John and wife Maripat by courtesy of the author

JB: When I first plucked your book from the library shelf, I assumed the  subtitle "A father and son's adventures with Asperger's, trains, tractors, and high explosives" was hyperbole, at least the bit about the high explosives. But it most certainly wasn't. What can you tell our readers about that?

JER:  Readers of Look Me in the Eye know pyrotechnics and explosives sort of run in the family for us.   As do tractors and trains.  When I was a teen, my special interest was music and electronics, but that led to work with KISS and some pretty impressive explosives effects.

However, I just controlled the explosives with my electronics.  My son took an interest in explosives as a teen, and he began creating and inventing explosive compounds.  

That led to a visit from the ATF, and a most unpleasant experience with a vicious local prosecutor.

JB:  Cubby was pulled out of class, interrogated by federal officers, and endured a raid of his lab involving a huge cast of characters. But, in the end, the various police forces packed up, went home and declined to arrest him. So, what went wrong? Why wasn't that the end of the story?

JER: It should have been . . . the investigators on the scene were convinced Cubby was no threat to anyone, and indeed they told me he could have a bright future in chemistry.  

Unfortunately, in Massachusetts (like many other states) the local prosecutors have the final say in who gets charged and sometimes opportunism or politics controls a process that should be governed by fairly evaluated evidence.

All too often, kids (and adults) who are different become targets of morally bankrupt or misguided public officials.  Being different should not be a crime, but all too often, that's how it works out.

JB:  Cubby faced many years in prison if convicted of any of the charges. While the full powers of the prosecutor's office were arrayed against him, he had at least two unexpected strengths. He was articulate.  And he had friends and supporters.  What role did these two factors play in this courtroom drama?  

JER: They played some role, to be sure, but the central issue was that he simply was not guilty of the charges.  The whole case was a figment of a failing prosecutor's twisted mind.

Yet it was all too real, and as you say, my son faced up to sixty years in state prison.  That highlights something awful that happens all to often in our society - if you do something unusual, and it gets misunderstood by the authorities, they can ruin your life.  It's a huge risk that many never see, till its too late.

JB: I imagine that's part of the reason that you write, confer and speak extensively about Asperger's, autism and your experiences.  All this while running JE Robison Service since 1986.  Can you tell our readers about your business and how you got into it?

JER: I quit electronics because I didn't understand the social dynamics of a larger workplace.  I wanted to be in a smaller setting, and one where I felt I could not be capriciously fired.  

I cast about among my skills, and decided to start fixing cars for people.  All the co-workers work for me, which means I can't lose my job for misunderstanding them.  There was no boss to fire me - just lots of different customers, each of whom dealt with me one at a time, individually.

You can read about the car company online at www.robisonservice.com

some recent projects by courtesy of the author

JB: Your website describes your business as "sales and service of fine used European and exotic automobiles". When Cubby was growing up, your Rolls Royce played a role in enabling the two of you to gain access to places ordinary citizens don't have access to. Can you talk about that a bit?

JER: I sure was proud of that car!  I lost all my money the first year I ran my new business.  Three years later, I'd turned the corner.  I was well on the way to pay off my debts and I was making a profit.  I had the chance to buy that car for $10,000 in a bankruptcy sale and I grabbed it.

It's true that car was an entree to many places and things.  We attended Rolls Royce Club events and car shows, and began building the substantial Rolls Royce service business we have today.  We also toured all of New England in the car, and it's true what I wrote in the Cubby book:  You can never be a trespasser in a Rolls!

If I were to pick one car to drive somewhere I should not - like the big rail yards in Selkirk, New York - it would be a grand old antique Rolls, or maybe a Cadillac or Packard.

And I've still got that car, by the way!

a beauty! by courtesy of the author

JB: Cool! What year is it and how many miles does it have on it? Is that the car with the interesting history or was that another Rolls? Tell that story too, please.

JER: The car in the story is a 1976, and it has about 45,000 miles on the odometer.  It's not driven much anymore but when my son was small we drove it every weekend the weather was nice.  

One of the interesting cars from Raising Cubby is Chairman Mao's 1972 Mercedes 600 limousine.  We restored that car for a client when Cubby was young, and I have a funny account of our trip to the Newport Car show one year.

We seem to have an endless procession of interesting cars here . . . it's what we do.  

JB: Sounds like fun! What can you tell our readers who might be interested in learning more about autism and Asperger's, John?

JER: Well, if they want to know more about autism in general, they can go to the websites of the Autism Society of America and Autism Speaks.  One of the best online communities for people on the spectrum is WrongPlanet.net.  

If they want to know what happened after Raising Cubby ends . . .  check out NY Times reporter Amy Harmon's excellent ebook - Asperger Love.

They can find me at johnrobison.com and on Facebook and Twitter and my blogs on Psychology Today and Blogger.

Our car company is online at RobisonService.com.

John at the shop by courtesy of the author

JB: Great!  I just read on your blog that you are opening up a trade school at your car dealership. What was the impetus for that, John?

JER:   I can't tell you how many times parents have asked me if I know of a program where their ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] kids could learn the automotive trade.  People have even offered to apprentice their kids to me in hopes I could teach them.  I've always wanted to help but I didn't have the resources.  Until now.  This summer I have partnered with Northeast Center For Youth and Families and we are preparing to open a school for at-risk teens right here in our auto complex.  We plan to begin with automotive vocational training and hope to expand to other vocations in the following years.

Right now we are waiting on inspection and approval from the state Dept of Education-stand by for news on my blog and website.

Here's a CBS tv news clip that answers that story.

JB: I can't wait to hear how the program goes. It sounds fabulous! What would you like to add before we wrap this up?

JER: I'm sorry, I don't really know how to answer an open ended question like that.

I thank you for putting this interview together.  And I appreciate the support of all the folks out there who read my stories and buy my books.  To a large extent the sale of my books makes it possible for me to volunteer my time for causes like this, and I appreciate that readers make that possible. At this moment I am working on my fourth book, which will tell the stories of some scientists working to change the workings of the mind, and my strange journey as I accompany them.


JB: Thanks so much for talking with me, John. I enjoyed it. And I loved your book!


John's website

His books: Be Different, Look Me in the Eye and Raising Cubby

My three-part interview with Temple Grandin:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Submitters Website: http://www.opednews.com/author/author79.html

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning. Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done. When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!" Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and Scoop.co.nz.