What It's Like to Raise a Kid With Autism -- When You're Autistic Too

John Robison Cubby
John and Cubby Robison
There's been a lot of buzz these past few weeks about what happens when kids with autism grow up. With diagnoses at what some call "epidemic" levels, it's about time we start talking about the reality that autism is not just a kid thing. In fact, it can be a parent thing ... because every day in America, grownups with autism are having kids. 

So what's it like to be a parent with autism? Who better to ask than John Elder Robison? The Massachusetts dad and member of the Autism Speaks Scientific Advisory and Scientific Treatment Board has just published Raising Cubby, his hilarious memoir of having Asperger's and raising a (now nearly grownup) son on the spectrum. 


Used to reading memoirs from moms about raising their autistic kids, Robison wanted to offer the world something different: the voice of a parent who actually has autism himself. He spoke with The Stir about everything from how his kid, Jack "Cubby" Robison, is like a farm crop to why the world needs geeks: 

On particular challenges of parenting with autism:

I surmise ordinary people are more emotional and less logical in their approach to parenting -- more likely to attempt problem solving with smooth talk, as opposed to applied science. I find that behavior very unsettling, as there is no certainty to emotion, as there is when it comes to Ohm’s Law.

An ordinary parent might place greater emphasis on making sure his child develops good social skills. A dad like me would be more concerned with teaching his kid truly useful things, like how the electric power grid operates or why the Haber-Bosch process is such an important part of chemistry.

Some might say that decent social skills are every bit as useful and practical as understanding the Haber-Bosch process, but it’s hard for people with Asperger’s to embrace the value of that kind of learning because it’s hard for us to recognize social subtleties.

The world needs geeks, and it takes people like us to produce them.

On adults on the spectrum who are considering becoming parents:

I would urge prospective parents to think carefully. Books and televisions are returnable if you change your mind. Kids are not. You can’t even sell them on eBay. So it’s important to understand your objectives going in, and be sure you are committed to staying the course.

From a purely logical perspective, the main purpose of raising children is for them to take care of you when you are old. In that sense, a good child is like a perennial farm crop. But unlike plants, children develop their own independent thoughts and feelings, and they may turn against you. If they do, the whole effort will be for naught.

On the brighter side, there is great satisfaction in having raised a functional, successful child, especially when you put them to work and get to sit back and watch the dollars roll in, thanks to your parenting skill. Sadly, that wonderful experience never actually happened to me, but I remain hopeful.

On parenting a child with autism:

While some parents do seem to worry that their kid might not be perfect, I’ve also observed that practically every dad believes his kid has superior intellectual skills, superior athletic skills, and better looks. But you have to look at them and ask: superior to what? Many of those parents look pretty marginal to me. It wouldn’t take much for a dad who’s in the bottom 1 percent in any of those categories to have a kid who’s better.

Cubby is certainly a high-grade child. We had that confirmed by professional testers. But I’m not a fool. I know he is not free of flaws. He’s what an engineer would call “suitable for the task at hand.”

Raising CubbyOn telling his story:

I wanted to offer an alternative to traditional memoirs of parents raising children with autism, most of which are written by moms. First of all, the fact that I am a dad gives my story a different perspective. Second, since I have Asperger’s too, I did not see my son as disabled no matter how others might have described his situation. Nor did I see myself as a hero in this story -- just a dad who did fun and unusual things. What kid wouldn’t love fire lizards and tugboats? Best of all, I helped Cubby celebrate our shared differences while surmounting our many challenges. That too is unique.

Although Cubby has a real disability, we made the best of it. I too have a real disability, and I’m a high school dropout. Despite that, both of us are ok. My kid is progressing through college, and I am running my own business. If we can do it, anyone can.

Cubby and I did fun stuff any kid would enjoy, Aspergian or not. I want readers of this book to walk away with ideas they can use in their own lives, whether it’s how to get a tour of the train yard, how to build a rocket, or how to stay out of jail.

Are you a parent with autism? What are your particular challenges and triumphs?


Images via Crown Publishing

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