The 2017 first annual Northern California Autism Symposium was hosted by the California State University, Chico. The keynote address was delivered by John Elder Robison who spoke about his childhood and adult journey. Robison described how he dropped out of school at 15, joined a rock-n-roll band, and suddenly found himself a member of a tribe of weirdos where nobody questioned his differences. That desire to connect both empowered him and debilitated him, as he rose to fame with electrical engineering abilities. The idea that he was a dropout, loser, and a fraud and would soon be found out just gnawed at him and pushed him to walk away from one promising career after another.
It wasn’t until after he was diagnosed as autistic when he was 40 and later learned that he was admired as the one of the best engineers Milton-Bradley Games ever had on their team, years after he quit that position. The lesson he learned was that skill alone will never compensate for the social inability to recognize that one is a valuable resource to a team. In parenting his son, John spoke about the encouragement he offered to pursue his special interests, even if it meant dropping out of school to chase his dream. While this approach may be unconventional, the current narrowing of the school system also starves unconventional learners of their ability to nurture their hungry and creative brains. If autistic people insist on becoming experts on their areas of passion, their special interest is misunderstood as a manifestation of a disability. We need to collaborate with autistic adults to help change how we see these strengths and how we nurture them in a closed system, or the brightest will drop out to find the scenic routes to success.