Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Moving father-son journey living with Asperger's

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AMERICAN John Robison, author of two other books on living with Asperger's, Be Different (2011) and Look Me in the Eye (2007), has joined Temple Grandin as an international spokesperson for people with the syndrome.

His contribution to the understanding by the general public of the disorder has been enormous.

In his latest book, Raising Cubby, he welcomes us into the world of parents raising an Asperger's child. There are several books by parents of autistic children -- the recent Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism by Montreal writer Joel Yanofsky has attracted a lot of acclaim -- but rarely are these books by and about parents who are themselves autistic.

Robison, his wife and his son Jack, or Cubby as his father calls him, all have Asperger's, although Robison, now 56, was not diagnosed until he was 40.

Despite a natural genius for electronics, which led him to create special effects for rock bands like Kiss, John Robison had great difficulty fitting in at school and in various workplaces.

He was bullied and misunderstood and he might never have accomplished much in his life if he had not struggled and overcome these barriers.

Robison and his wife are divorced and they shared responsibility Cubby, who is now an independent young adult. Robison's descriptions of dealing with teenage rebellion and his son's struggles with school will be familiar to most parents.

Cubby is a brilliant individual but the structures and timetables of high school proved to be a problem. He did make many friends and was not as isolated as his father had been at the same age.

Robison and his wife began to suspect that their son also had Asperger's when he began to exhibit some of the characteristics -- the dependence upon rigid routines, being oblivious to non-verbal clues, a lack of empathy and the tendency to have all-consuming obsessions.

Robison is obsessed with electronics and mechanical engineering and Cubby has chosen organic chemistry.

These are not just passing interests or spare time hobbies. They are full-blown obsessions pursued by people of very exceptional intelligence.

So the two men taught themselves their subjects, having dropped out of schools where they could not function well and both have achieved PhD level expertise.

In Cubby's case the interest in organic chemistry developed into a specialization in experimenting with chemical compounds that explode. Beginning with making fireworks he developed a sophisticated lab in his mother's basement in Springfield, Mass., where he mixed a variety of compounds and then experimented with them in the woods near his father's house. He took great pride in his research and built a website with YouTube videos to share his knowledge.

Being Asperger's it did not really occur to him that this might attract the attention of the police. But it did, and in a tragi-comic overreaction federal, state and local police descended upon the teenager and his lab and he ended up being formally charged with three counts of creating malicious explosions.

The description of the trial is riveting and as dramatic as any movie courtroom scene with a vicious prosecutor, a jury that may or may not understand the expert testimony and a climactic scene where the brilliant and innocent teen goes up against his accuser.

Asperger's people may have trouble with empathy but there is no doubt about John Robison's love for his son. He has written a moving story that entertains and educates the reader.

Jim Blanchard is a father, a librarian at the University of Manitoba and a writer of local history.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J9

History

Updated on Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 4:23 PM CDT: adds fact box

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