Raising Baby – Roller Coaster Ride
Q. What could be more thrilling (and exhausting) than giving birth to the next generation in the form of your own flesh and blood?
A. Raising that son or daughter, of course.
Unlike all other creative projects, raising a baby from birth to adulthood is a 24/7 job for the first few years. After that, child rearing continues to be a demanding and unpredictable commitment; you never know what sudden needs or emergencies will spring up along the way to independent adulthood. (BTW, when does adulthood officially start these days? Honestly, with 24 year-old twins, I still can’t answer that question!) Of course, we all go about raising our babies differently, depending on how, when and where we grew up. We all want to do better than our own parents, but the meaning of “better” varies, depending on who you ask.
Reading John Elder Robison’s memoir, Raising Cubby,—the memoir of a father with Asperger’s Syndrome who raised a son with Asperger’s—is both fascinating and entirely different from my own experience raising a daughter on the spectrum together with her neurotypical twin brother. In some ways, I couldn’t be more different than John Robison. Robison grew up in the rural South; I was raised in New York City. He dropped out of high school at age 16 and married young, whereas I graduated from high-school and college, and married on the older side, at age 32. But, like many millennials today, I struggled to find my first job in publishing (not as a glorified secretary). I too strained to establish a career as a neurotypical woman in the late ‘70s participating in the move to break the glass ceiling. On the other hand, Robison—because of his brilliance in electronic skills—quickly established himself in the music business, later becoming highly successful in the automotive business, repairing and restoring high-end cars.
The differences between Robison’s history and mine are less important than what we share in common: the passion to protect and raise a child on the spectrum, which shines forth beautifully in his memoir, Raising Cubby. Robison and I have each raised millennials with autism. We loved our children unconditionally and advocated for them tirelessly in the face of different-but-daunting obstacles. Does it really matter that Jack Robison (aka Cubby) was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 10, whereas my Sarah was labelled with Pervasive Developmental Disorder at 12 months? Just as Robison affectionately nicknamed his son Cubby, we used to call Sarah Sweet Pea and Steamboat. Cubby struggled in school like his father, dropped out of high-school, while displaying Aspergian brilliance in chemistry (rather than electronics). Sarah managed to graduate from both high school and college, (like me) in spite of her myriad social and academic challenges. What strikes me is that Robison was every bit as devoted, compassionate and protective of his son as I have been raising Sarah. What does that tell you about a father with Asperger’s Syndrome? It tells me that the neurotypical world has a LOT to learn about ADULTS on the spectrum. I think we owe them much more respect than they usually receive. Despite disabilities, Robison and other parents on the spectrum are loving and competent (perhaps even more so) than many mainstream moms and dads.
Nowhere is it more apparent that Robison is the father any son would want on his side than when Cubby is arrested for setting off explosives. In today’s frightening post- 9/11 world, an overly ambitious DA decided to charge and prosecute Robison’s son as a felon and potential terrorist, instead of seeing him as a brilliant, precocious teen on the spectrum with a passion for chemistry. During the excruciating time (over a year!) that passed before Cubby’s case finally came to trial, Robison noted: “Not one of the investigators said: ‘This is a really smart kid. What could we do to help him find a place where he could develop his talents? Instead, in essence they said: This is a really smart kid. What can we charge him with to put him in prison?”
While Robison’s son was ultimately acquitted of all charges, and at age 25 Cubby is a source of tremendous pride to his father, the Robison family lived through long months of unnecessary hell. For over a year Cubby’s mother and father worried their misunderstood teenage son with Asperger’s would spend the rest of his life in prison because under-educated people in positions of power lacked the empathy, the integrity and even the curiosity to find out what was really going on. Wait! Wasn’t lack of empathy supposed to be a symptom of autism? Neurotypicals are supposed to be GOOD at empathy, right? We neurotypicals are supposed to be honoring diversity, CARING about our children, particularly the vulnerable, brilliant ones, right?
The USA is a frightening place today. Our police are not held accountable for killing African American males in alarming numbers; young people of every color and ethnic background end up with permanent criminal records for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In the face of such obvious callous lack of compassion or even fairness on the part of educated people in positions of power, the fact that a father and son team with Asperger’s Syndrome could emerge victorious from a neurotypical courtroom, gives me hope that one day sanity, compassion and the ability to see the truth may create a better world for our grandchildren.
As Robison says at the end of Raising Cubby, several million young people are coming of age right now with some form of autism. Will they find love, friendship and a productive lives? For Cubby and for my Sarah, the possibility (the hope!) exists even today. Robison is not the only proud parent who has written a memoir about how far his child has come, despite all the ups and downs in life. I too have written such a memoir about Sarah. Hopefully, our son and daughter are the first of many young adults on the spectrum who leave the family nest, flying higher and farther than many people could ever have imagined.