Autism Awareness Special Edition: A Day with John Elder Robison


Unlike some older brothers, I never set him [brother Augusten Burroughs] on fire, or cut off an arm or leg, or drowned him in the tub. ~John Elder Robison

If any of my readers on the spectrum have yet to read John Elder Robison’s autobiography, Look Me in the Eye, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s written with warmth and typical wry Aspie wit, and tells the story of how a high school dropout with AS became a success story, including gigs designing guitars for KISS and games for Milton Bradley. His new book, which I purchased today, is Be Different, practical advice for those with AS and their families. Mr. Robison was in Nashville today as the keynote speaker for our local chapter of GRASP and I had the pleasure of attending.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect; I’d never met an adult with autism before outside the GRASP monthly meetings, and especially not one as successful as Mr. Robison has become. What I observed was a fiftyish man who was obviously fiercely bright, dressed like any “normal” person I knew, and who could have passed for a physics or engineering professor at one of the local universities. In other words, one would not think of him as autistic by looking at him.

“Wow,” I told my NT mother, who accompanied me today for support, “he really looks pretty normal, ya know?”

John Elder Robison

I suppose this is a secret desire of mine, to be able to “pass” for normal the way many light-skinned African Americans once “passed” for Caucasian in the Jim Crow South. I never wanted anyone to be able to identify me as autistic based on my ungainly walk, the peculiar lilt of my voice, or the fact that I rarely made eye contact. At the same time, I quietly think of AS as a badge of honor. As Mr. Robison explained, autism and Aspergers are not diseases to be cured. They are an integral part of a person and offer a unique world view.

Because I never take notes or video such events, I’ll go by memory. Mr. Robison used no notes or PowerPoint presentations and even declined to use a microphone. He is a natural-born speaker who, as he explained it, comes from a long line of preachers. He even explained that, growing up in the hyper-social South, he was often accused of being overly aloof and “northern” somehow. Having lived over ten years in the South myself, I can relate. Contrary to the myth of someone with AS, he displayed a complete range of voice and often had the large audience laughing. Again, he just seemed so “normal.”

The range of topics covered was broad, and, like many Aspie conversations, entirely non-linear. Mr. Robison spoke on everything from his opinion on organizations like Autism Speaks to current therapies in the field. His style is that of the best sort of professor: educated and informed, yet easily accessible to a layperson. Since so many NTs like my mom were in attendance today, I appreciated that approach.

The subject I was most eager to hear about was Aspie relationships. I hadn’t realized it, but Mr. Robison has been divorced twice (though remains friendly with his ex-wives; one of whom is his business partner.) He is also the father of a 21-year-old son who also has Aspergers. Several of the audience members tossed out questions on relationships: how to find Aspie partners, whether it was better for an Aspie to date a fellow Aspie or an NT, appropriate behavior for Aspie teens with raging hormones. One of the more useful tidbits (if you will, one of those “a-ha” moments) came when Mr. Robison explained how women are expected to be choosers in Western culture, and the concept of “choosability.” For Aspie males, rejection means merely being laughed at. For Aspie females, rejection may mean being permanently ostracized. In other words, Aspie females can’t have it both ways.

Reading from "Be Different"

Another thing I observed as I ate from the catered breakfast tray: how many subtle Aspie traits he actually displayed. When addressing the audience (and, as he explained, he’s gotten much better with practice), he often used the old stage actor’s trick of looking slightly above, rather than at, the audience. Eye contact is difficult for Aspies and I imagine Mr. Robison is no exception. At one point he recounted some of the letters he’d received from AS parents whose children found his voice oddly comforting. I realized that this was true: I’m not sure whether there is such a thing as a vocal intonation unique to autism, but I’m often able to pick out a fellow Aspie based on his or her voice now. Also, Mr. Robison spoke of the tendency of Aspies to exhibit a slightly odd, “shambling” gait. I asked Mom about this, concerned.

“Well,” she admitted sheepishly, “you always did walk that way a bit.” Not shambling in the way of, say, a zombie in some B-movie, but rather a stiff-legged gait. Aspies, it seems, receive signals from the brain in different ways than NTs.

I didn’t get the chance to ask Mr. Robison my question about writing and publishing. This was for two reasons. One, there were more pressing questions on the menu from people on the spectrum. There were questions asked on everything from sensory difficulties to how to meet girls. Also, I’m always terribly shy and self-conscious at these sorts of events. If I want to ask my question, it’ll have to wait for email or Facebook. Nevertheless, his success as an author (Look Me in the Eye has become the all-time bestselling title about life on the spectrum) gives me hope that I may one day sell a book or two of my own. Another “a-ha” moment came as Mr. Robison explained how many Aspies are unable to speak in public, but have no compunctions about putting their thoughts on paper. I’d certainly file myself in this category. The market, he explained, is hungry for manuscripts about life on the spectrum with the increasing number of diagnoses.

Not all of the topics brought up at the conference applied to me or my experiences, but no doubt they were helpful to others who attended. At some points I found myself fidgeting a bit (it might have been the uncomfortable chairs in the hall), and I’ll admit some of the descriptions of cognitive therapy went right over my head. The good thing was, there were at least a half-dozen of those enlightening, “a-ha” moments. That’s enough for me, and I found the presentation well worth the price of admission.

One of Robison''s KISS guitars

I came away from the conference feeling drained, as I usually do from social events of any kind. At the same time, I feel hopeful knowing that there are other Aspie adults in the world who have lived their dreams and become successes in their field. Mr. Robison is a wonderful role model for any young Aspie struggling in the world. Because I’ve been one of those “late bloomers,” I’m still waiting to take that next step and pursue my dreams. Whether I become a professional writer or a helicopter pilot, to me, is irrelevant. I know that it is not only possible, but probably for Aspie adults to succeed despite their differences. I even know that oddball special interests can be parlayed into careers all their own. So, no matter what, I’ve decided to “be different” and keep staying true to myself. I’m honored to have met Mr. Robison and heard his story in person. I’m also grateful for all the support I’ve gotten through GRASP.

I don’t know what the next chapter is for me, only that I must write it. I hope I can do a fraction of the good Mr. Robison has done for the Aspie community through this blog.

Enjoyed this post? Be sure to click “Like” and add P&Q to your subscriptions! Coming tomorrow: Aspies and friendship…

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 10, 2011.

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