Monday, May 27, 2013

We're starting a trade school at Robison Service

The automobile trade has been good to me.   From a humble beginning in the garage beside my house, Robison Service has evolved into one of the leading import car specialists in New England.  We’ve grown from a twelve by twenty foot stall to a complex of buildings; all by providing a service few people choose to offer.

Our business has succeeded through the hard work of many people, and the support of a loyal clientele.  But before we had those things, there was me – an autistic adult who needed a job.

I started this company because I couldn’t fit in at the Big Corporation.   It’s given me stability, and a sense of value in the community.  As manufacturing and management jobs have evaporated from the businesses around me, it’s also given me security.  No one will be outsourcing repair of Mom’s BMW, or restoration of Dad’s Jaguar anytime soon.

The same can be said for most of the trades.  Electricians, plumbers, mechanics, HVAC people . . . we do very different work but we have a few things in common:
  • We work with our hands
  • We rely on focus, concentration, and specialized knowledge to succeed
  • Technical skill means more than people skills in most of our jobs
  • Our jobs are local, and they won’t be outsourced to India or China any day soon!

Becoming a skilled tradesman is one way a person like me – from an at-risk background, with some “differences” to set me apart – can find success in this society.  An established tradesman will always have work, often with a better-than-average income for his area.

Knowing that, I’ve always wished there was a way I could teach the practical trades to young people like me.  I get a steady trickle of emails asking that very thing.  This summer, I am pleased to say we are taking some action.

We are seeking MA Dept of Education approval to open a trade school in the Robison Service complex.

We want to teach basic mechanics, vehicle inspection, detailing, small engine repair and landscaping.  All that can be done right here where I work every day – alongside real professionals practicing the same trades day in and day out.

We are partnering with NortheastCenter for Youth and Families, and Tri County Schools of Easthampton.  Students will divide their time between shop classes in our complex and the regular academic program at Tri County’s Easthampton campus.  I will be an advisor but the teaching will be done by legitimate special ed professionals, not just outlaws like me!

Tri County is a long-established non-profit Massachusetts Chapter 766 approved special education school.  Once approved, students in our programs will be referred by state agencies, school districts, and private professionals.  Some of our kids will be on the autism spectrum, but we will also welcome kids from at-risk home environments and kids with other developmental challenges.

We are presently recruiting a shop teacher and several other staff.  Follow this link if you’re interested in working with us.

Are you interested in our programs?  Here's our contact for enrollment:

Jennifer S. Miller, LSWA
(413) 529-7386 (office)
(413) 265-3989 (cell)

We hope to be open for fall semester 2013, and we plan to begin taking applications for summer school 2014 very soon - we have our state inspection scheduled for late July, after which we will know more.  I expect mostly day students but NCYF does have residential options.

I’m very excited about this new program.  Frankly, it’s something of a dream come true.  I can’t wait to see us open the doors.  Do you know someone who wants to be in our first class?

Stay tuned for updates, and announcement of our first open house in August.  Think hard about those trades, too.  Not everyone is cut out for college.   I wasn’t. 

John Elder Robison is an adult with autism, and the parent of an adult son with autism.  He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Department if Health and Human Services.  He serves on numerous public and private boards, and he’s the founder of JE Robison Service of Springfield, MA.  John is also the NY Times bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby.  He lives in Western Massachusetts.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Temple Grandin and The Autistic Brain

Temple Grandin’s new book – The Autistic Brain – is in my opinion her most insightful work to date.  It’s also a stylistic departure from anything she’s done before.  Perhaps that because it’s co-written with science writer Richard Panek.

The central thesis of this book is that autistic people are different because their brains are different.  Not our minds – our brains.   For many of us this is a novel but probably more correct way of thinking about autism and neurodiversity.

Consider this phrase: autistic people are anxious because anxiety is a byproduct of autism.   Temple asks a very insightful question.  She says, Brain scans have shown my amygdala is quite a bit larger than average.  Might that explain why I feel anxious?

We’ve made huge advances in brain imaging over the past fifteen years.  For most of that time, Temple has offered herself as a research subject at various university hospitals.   This book synthesizes all she has learned, and leads readers to ask how our own neurology may define who we are and how we feel.

There’s no talk of a cure in this book – Temple seems content with who she is.  Other books describe journeys of transformation; this story details her journey of understanding.

Indeed, her hypotheses that behavioral differences of autism are tied to physical differences in the brain implies a sort of permanence.   If you think you are anxious because your mind processes data differently, that’s an abstract way of seeing things that leaves open the possibility that you will think differently one day, and perhaps be less anxious as a result.  Imagining oneself to be anxious because of an over-large amygdala seems to me much less changeable.

Maybe that is simply the reality of things.  After all, she’s in her sixties and I’m in my fifties, and both of us felt anxiety as kids and we feel anxiety today.  We have certainly learned to manage it better, but anxiety remains a part of both of us, and it’s probably with us to stay.

Some may find that deterministic or disturbing, but I don’t see it that way.  I think it’s simply a more realistic way to think, in terms of explaining why we are different.   It’s not necessarily correct to think there isn’t hope for change – and she points this out.  For example, she says her own life has become immeasurably better, thanks to antidepressants.  And she hints at other therapies that are on the horizon.

In the end, it all comes down to this: knowledge is power.   My own life was transformed when I learned of my own autism, and exactly how I was different from other people.   Temple’s new book gives a new level of understanding, and many new hypotheses to ponder.  That can’t help but empower those who take it all in, and cogitate upon her words.

The Autistic Brain is something anyone could benefit from reading, and I recommend it to anyone with a personal or professional connection to autism or neurological difference.

 Read more, in her own words, in this article from Wired

John Elder Robison is the NY Times bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby.  He is both an adult with autism and a parent of a son with autism.  He lives in Western Massachusetts.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A visit with VASA

The warship Vasa was the pride of Sweden's king Gustavus Adolphus when she was launched in 1628, but she capsized and sank barely a mile into her first voyage.   Raised and preserved she is an extraordinary memorial and a unique example of both 17th century shipbuilding and naval life.

In this image a scale model of Vasa sits in front of the real thing.  The actual ship is now housed in a special climate controlled building.  When raised, the wood had lost all traces of its original paint scheme.  However, the model has been painted based on surviving descriptions and paintings of the era

The Vasa was adorned with incredibly elaborate carvings and scrollwork, most of which have stood up amazingly well.  The vast majority of what you see in today's museum is original 400-year-old wood.

Here's a mix of original scrollwork and painted reconstructions . . .

But there's more . . . .

The mud of the harbor protected and preserved the wreckage remarkably well.   Archaeologists have recovered most of the ship's sails, the gun carriages (the guns themselves were salvaged shortly after the sinking via early diving bell) and the remains of the passengers and crew.

Now, the faces of the crew have been reconstructed and they gaze back at us impassively.  It's downright eerie, encountering these faces on the bottom level of the exhibit, with the dark hull of the ship towering five stories high behind you . . . .

The last figure is particularly noteworthy because he's believed to be the Vasa's steersman.  It was he who held the rudder as the ship rolled over in her first stiff wind, and he drowned at his post, where they found him.

The Vasa museum was surely the high point of my tour today.  I recommend this remarkable display of nautical history to anyone.  It's almost worth the $2,500 airfare by itself!

More on Vasa, from Wikipedia

The Vasa Museum website (English version)

These pictures were taken with a Nikon D7000 and Nikkor 24-120 lens.  John Elder Robison is a photographer and bestselling author.  His books Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby are read worldwide.  John lives in Western Massachusetts, in the United States.