Identifying Asperger's in your child is doubly difficult when you're afflicted yourself.
"There are some people waiting to talk to you, Jack."
My son, 17 and new to college, considered what kind of trouble he might be in and why. Classes were going okay, as far as he knew. He didn't drink or do drugs, and he was never involved in altercations. Yet his professor's demeanor was unmistakably serious. They stepped into the hall, where he saw two men in suits and a college policeman in uniform. Lawmen.
John Elder Robison is the author of Raising Cubby, Look Me in the Eye, My Life with Asperger’s, and Be Different – adventures of a free range Aspergian. John’s books are sold in a dozen languages in over 65 countries. Robison is the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Department of Health and Human Services. He has also served on review boards for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Jack shook hands with a special agent from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and an officer from the Massachusetts State Police Arson and Explosives Unit. The agent gestured toward an empty classroom as Jack's professor backed away. "I guess you know why we're here," he said.
As a teen, my son had developed an increasing passion for organic chemistry. Some might call it an obsession. In particular, he had a fascination with what chemists call energetic reactions, or explosions. While the word raises alarms, he never made bombs or anything dangerous. He set off test explosions in the woods and fields near our rural home. No one complained, and his tests didn't do any harm. Still, like any dad, I worried that he'd get hurt. The other problem: He'd been filming his experiments and posting them on YouTube.
Between the videos documenting his explosions and his web postings about his chemistry research, he knew there were a number of reasons these officers might be paying him a visit, but he also knew enough to let them make the first move. "No, I don't know. Why are you here?" Jack said to the agents. Even innocent-sounding questions could lead tocriminal charges, but legitimate scientific interest in physics and chemistry is not against the law. And he was firm in his conviction that he had done nothing wrong.
The federal agent asked, "You know what kinds of cases the state fire marshal and the ATF investigate, don't you?"
My son gave in. "Are you here to talk about the videos I posted on YouTube?"
"We are," the agent answered. "Tell us what you've been doing in the woods."
"Am I under arrest?"
The agent assured him he was not. "Jack, you are free to go anytime. But if you walk out, we'll just get a warrant and search without your consent. So what's it going to be?" He stayed seated. "We have teams waiting to search both your parents' houses. You can talk to us now, or we'll search the houses and talk at the police station afterward." Were they for real? There was no way for Jack to know. Maybe there were 50 agents and a tank waiting to pounce on both my house and his mother's.
Jack decided he was most afraid of parental fury. The threat of looting and pillaging our homes sounded a lot worse than just talking to the cops right then. Whatever their suspicions might be, he believed in his innocence, and he decided to talk.
Mostly Jack talked about science and the wonders of the natural world. Later, the investigators told me that Jack spoke with surprising eloquence. He talked about the Estes model rockets he built with his mom, and about the school rocket club that he'd founded when he was 13. He sketched out chemical reactions and explained the scientific shorthand; he showed them how to make sucrose rocket engines with sugar and potassium nitrate, and explained that he'd bought all the ingredients with his own money at the supermarket, the hardware store, and Walmart, and on eBay.
The idea that a seventh grader could have made decent rocket fuel was sobering. By the time he turned 17, Jack had taught himself how to make a wide variety of military-grade explosives by reading library books and information online.
At first the cops didn't know what to make of this kid. His was not the voice of a bomb maker or someone who laid deadly traps. The investigators could see that my son didn't have a revolutionary agenda at all, just scientific curiosity.
I had always taken pride in the idea that Jack was more socially aware than I. I remember when I was a kid, adults picked me up and made faces at me, expecting me to smile back, but I didn't. We didn't know it then, but I have Asperger's, a mild form of autism.
People with Asperger's might appear self-centered, but folks on the autism spectrum don't behave in a self-centered way to be mean or take advantage; they do it because they don't get the signals others are sending. This trait has caused a lot of trouble in my life, and I had always hoped that Jack wouldn't take after me in that respect. I was relieved that, unlike me, my young son always smiled back.
Yet as he grew older Jack could be totally oblivious to others. That was revealed to me gradually, as others told me of his behavior. For example, when Jack was 16, my friend Rick gave him a summer job in a lab at the university. One day, Rick watched Jack inadvertently run over another student's foot with a chair. He didn't even notice when she howled. Most of the days in the lab, my son was so immersed in his work that he ignored the other students, and they were annoyed when he neglected them. They would talk to one another about their lives and local events, while he behaved as if he didn't know them and didn't care. Indeed, he probably didn't. It was as if they had formed a team and he was on his own. Meanwhile, Jack had no clue that they felt that way; he only knew that he always felt like an outsider. In fact, he was shocked to realize that he might have even been rude.
Was this Asperger's? I was afraid so.
There were many other clues that my son was on the spectrum. When he was a boy, the more he became obsessed with rockets, the less he brushed and washed. If I left him alone, he would sleep until noon, wake up, study chemistry, and conduct his experiments until two in the morning. More and more, I saw my own Asperger's in him: rigidity, blindness to the nonverbal signals of others, and his all-consuming obsessions. Doctors had never suggested he had Asperger's, but of course it wasn't in the diagnostic lexicon when he was young. School evaluations talked about ADD and visual processing, while all the time the root cause was right under our noses. In hindsight, I'm shocked that I didn't see it sooner.
Jack and I consulted a psychologist, and he concluded that my son does indeed have Asperger's. But how could he help my son navigate independent adult life? If you can't pick up on other people's unspoken messages, it's not easy to create emotional insight where there is none. It's a problem I have wrestled with myself for years.
Then, in 2008, my son accompanied me to Harvard Medical School and Boston's Beth Israel Medical Center, where we participated in several studies that use magnetic fields to measure the brain. The study confirmed that Jack shares my brain differences and gave him new insights into his perceptual abilities.
But that wasn't all. We learned that Jack and I are not the only autistic Robisons. We realized that his mother is also on the spectrum. I had no idea, but when I look back with the benefit of the knowledge I have today, her behavior fairly shouts "autistic!" Most scientists believe there is a significant genetic component to autism, and our family history certainly supports that argument. My father died before any of this unfolded, but if he were alive today, he'd almost certainly be diagnosed on the spectrum. And when I consider family stories of eccentric ancestors, I suspect this has been in my family for a long, long time.
It was obvious to me that Jack's Asperger's had blinded him to how other people might be frightened or worried about what they saw in his videos. The events didn't end with the visit with the lawmen, however. My ex-wife's home was searched and all of my son's chemical compounds were taken away. The district attorney even prosecuted anyway, but my son was found not guilty. Jack was just a kid obsessed with his chemistry set—albeit a truly sophisticated one.