By Debra Hosseini
“We wanted a town where we could all feel like we fit in – a place that accommodated geeks and freaks, was safe, and was within commuting distance of Springfield.” John Elder Robison, “Raising Cubby: A Father and Son’s Adventures with Asperger’s, Trains, Tractors and HIGH EXPLOSIVES”
I picked up the memoir “Raising Cubby” (2013) by John Elder Robison a couple days ago to occupy myself on the long drive back from Sedona. After the first chapter, which begins with seventeen-year old Jack Robison (Cubby) in court on felony charges, I was hooked. The book focuses on two stories: John’s own teenage and adult life and his son Jack’s development from birth through his teens.
John, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s after Jack’s birth, has an unusual habit of affixing descriptive nicknames to those he’s close to. His first wife Mary he names Little Bear, their offspring Jack is Cubby and his little brother Augusten (author of Running with Scissors) he calls Varmint.
Asperger’s is a neurodiversity on the autism spectrum. Throughout the book John makes reference to his own Asperger’s and notes signs of it in Cubby’s development. Cubby isn’t formally diagnosed with Asperger’s until his teens.
Cubby displays uneven skills growing up – brilliant in solving puzzles and complicated equations – yet a late reader who lacks reciprocity. When Cubby does learn to read, he becomes a fluent reader in one summer bypassing his peers. John shares insights into the plasticity of the autistic brain and how Mary and he motivates Cubby to read.
Mary is also diagnosed years after John with Asperger’s. Mary has problems with executive functioning skills which effects her organization and housekeeping.
All three share brilliance in their areas of interest. John makes mention of autism and savant skills.
John, who drops out of high school at age 16, has a successful job at a young age fixing musical instruments and creating pyrotechnic displays for bands such as KISS. He then works as an inventor of games for a famous toy maker. When he lands a managerial position in a corporation, he has trouble reading non-verbal cues from others and as much as he tries can’t fit into corporate culture. He ends up in his own business – a career move which many with Asperger’s make.
The heart of the book isn’t about John or Cubby, as much as it is about two neurodivergent adults, parenting an exceptional yet challenging child. It shows the development of John’s parenting skills, and how he compensates for his own Asperger’s with creative solutions.
Besides the compelling story about Cubby’s chemistry experiments and dilemma with the legal system, what impresses me most about the book is John and Mary’s love for their son. Despite their marriage ending in divorce, John and Mary are able to work out their differences and put Cubby’s needs first. John even moves to a different town for a better school for his son.
“We wanted a town where we could all feel like we fit in – a place that accommodated geeks and freaks, …”
I think I’ve said those same words myself recently. As a parent of an autistic young man who is now facing his own legal issues, I find John’s observations at the end of the book compelling.
“Activities that were once dismissed as pranks and ‘kids being kids’ are now prosecuted with vigor. Fights between school-children end up in court. Fights between drunken college students send youths to jail. Sure, those behaviors merit punishment, but in today’s society the punishment is out of proportion to the action.”
“We think of our country as free, but we have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation. In 1980, five hundred thousand Americans were in jail. Today that number has ballooned to almost 2.5 million…One reason is that we’ve criminalized so many behaviors.”
I also relate to John’s observations about how a lack of willingness to communicate and work out differences can cause pain, suffering and huge legal costs. As he points out this is why we have wars.
I highly recommend this book. Not only does it give an insight into neurodiversity and Asperger’s, it’s a great book on raising an exceptional child.
I can’t stress how much this book put my own small problems into perspective. To know others have weathered much bigger storms, and come out the other side, gives me hope.
In the future, I look forward to reading more about Cubby’s brilliant inventions. I believe that the autistic mind will solve many of our world’s most compelling problems.