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Interview: John Elder Robison Talks About His Life With Asperger's
Thursday, October 25, 2007

In his memoir, Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robison provides an insightful glimpse into how Asperger's, a form of high functioning autism, has influenced his life. Robison was not diagnosed with Asperger's until he was forty, but this has not prevented him from becoming successful both personally and professionally. A husband, father, and small business owner, Robison also created the special effects guitars KISS played in the 70s and worked as an engineer at a major toy company. Both humorous and compelling, Look Me in the Eye provides us with an important story about growing up and living life with Asperger's.

We talked with Mr. Robison about his book and his thoughts on Asperger's.

Treatment Online: How would your life have been different if you had been diagnosed with Asperger's as a child?

John Elder Robison: If I had known about Asperger's when I was five or six years old, I first of all do not know if I would have been able to make a lot of that knowledge, personally. I'm afraid that what would have happened is I would have been labeled as a child with Asperger's, a kid who was different, and I'm afraid that that label would have shaped how I was raised and how I grew up. And I don't know that that would have been good because while it seems like it could be beneficial for a kid to be identified as having Asperger's when he's six or seven, the kid might be rude to the teacher, and the teacher says, "Oh it's okay, he has Asperger's." The fact is, when that same kid is eighteen and he's in a restaurant, people in the restaurant aren't going to say, "Oh, it's okay, he has Asperger's." They're going to say, "He's an obnoxious little jerk." And people with Asperger's have to learn to take the world as it is. I think that if I had learned about Asperger's when I was fifteen or sixteen, it would have saved me, at that point, a considerable amount of discomfort and loneliness. So, I guess I think that there's a point in one's childhood when learning about it could be beneficial. I don't know what the exact number is. It varies, I'm sure, from kid to kid, but I'm sure it's somewhere toward the fifteen end of things not the five end of things.

TOL: You struggled in school and eventually dropped out. What can teachers and parents do to help children with Asperger's adjust to school?

JER: First of all, kids with Asperger's come in all intelligence ranges. Kids like me who are very smart overall, we tend to have a number of narrowly focused interests where our intelligence seems to concentrate. If we are highly intelligent overall, that concentrated focus means that we can really learn fast about things that interest us, and we're going to leave any normal school program behind. By the time I was fifteen, I was able to do sort of graduate level work in electrical engineering even though I was failing high school. So one thing that teachers can do is provide students with materials that will actually be challenging to them. And they have to realize that the materials can be extremely advanced in one subject area and almost remedial in another because of the huge disparity. Another thing that teachers can do, and I think you can take this directly from the early stories in Look Me in the Eye, is that teachers can, when they see a kid by himself on the playground, recognize that he is probably by himself not because he wants to be, but because he has failed to engage with other kids, and he's feeling probably pretty miserable about it. I think if teachers act on that instead of the idea that the kid just wants to be left alone, that, I think, will take the par. I think also, in the case of smaller kids, I think teachers would do well to be fast on their feet so that they can follow conversations that seem sometimes disjointed and nonsensical with kids with Asperger's.

TOL: You talk about how social skills are an important aspect of personal and social success. How did you learn social skills and how can we help children with Asperger's to learn them?

JER: Some basic skills I learned by watching other kids and listening to lectures on manners and behavior that I got from my mother and my grandmother. I suppose every kid gets some of amount of education in that regard from their family. I didn't really make huge strides until I was forty years old, when I learned about Asperger's, because up till that time, I kind of believed what everyone told me, which was that I was just sort of no good, or I was lazy, or I didn't apply myself, and I didn't see myself as fundamentally different from other people. But when I learned about Asperger's, and I realized that I was myself an Aspergian, I then knew that I was different, and for the first time I started learning about what those differences were. And when I knew that, I could see specific things I would have to do to modify my behavior in order to make myself more acceptable or normal to the rest of the population.

TOL: How important was it for you to feel accepted by others?

JER: It was very important for me to feel like I fit in and be accepted. I think it's important for everyone to feel that they fit in and feel accepted. I think that humans are pack animals like most monkeys and dogs and what have you, and I think that we want to be part of the pack and fit in and don't want to be by ourselves.

TOL: Asperger's left you with some invisible handicaps. How have you coped with having a condition that no one can see?

JER: I coped with it by adjusting my behavior, so, as I've said in other interviews, I am not weird but merely eccentric. And I've learned a lot about what other people are going to do from my fifty years of observing them. I have to say at this point I don't really have a lot of trouble fitting in because I've had a lot of practice at it. That's something that I think is an important inspirational concept for parents and young people with Asperger's. It's a condition that we continually sort of evolve and adapt with, and the older we get the more normal we become, in most cases.

TOL: Do you think Asperger's will become more well-known in the future?

JER: Given that no one knew what it was at all five to ten years ago, and there's considerable awareness of it now, yes I think it is becoming more known all the time. It certainly is a more common condition than anyone previously imagined. Asperger's, I think, may turn out to be one of the principle different sorts of mind construction that humans have.

TOL: You talk about how Asperger's is a way of being rather than a disease. Do you think we focus too much on finding cures for conditions like Asperger's and other autistic spectrum disorders?

JER: Well, certainly some people focus on finding cures. I think that a mother who had a child who was autistic and was profoundly impaired and this child needed assistance to do everything in life... I think many such mothers would want to cure their child and make them better. However, it's not clear to me that those children want to be cured. Looking at myself, for example, even when I was younger, people looked at me and said, "I wish he could be normal" or "I wish he could make friends" or "I wish he could do that." People had all kinds of ideas for how they wished they could change me, and they thought those were a cure, but at no time did I ever really want a cure. I did want to fit in and have friends and be accepted, but I never wanted my way of thinking changed, and I'm not clear that even autistic people who are pretty impaired want that. I think that many of them wish to be left alone, as is evidenced by a lot of the bloggers on the internet who are autistic.

TOL: In the corporate world, you struggled to work in a team environment. Eventually you started your own business, where many of your Aspergian traits are very useful. How important is it for someone with Asperger's to recognize and utilize their strengths?

JER: I think if a person with Asperger's does not recognize and utilize their strengths, all they're going to be left with is their handicaps, so I think that's a pretty poor way to be. I think that whether somebody has Asperger's or not, the wise person finds out what their strengths are and they try to use them to move themselves forward in life. That's really not an Aspergian thing. That's just a "success in life" thing.

TOL: Growing up you faced many challenges in addition to having Asperger's, including an abusive home life. Was writing a way for you to come to terms with these negative experiences?

JER: I think that I came to terms with the experiences before I began to write my book. I actually think that having Asperger's shielded me from many of the bad experiences that you just alluded to. Because I don't really see sarcasm, or body language, or any of that kind of stuff, I think that many of what might have been bad moments in my home life just passed me by. And I don't know that it was as bad for me as it might have been for a kid who wasn't Aspergian.

TOL: Did writing about your past give you a better sense of how Asperger's has affected your life?

JER: It certainly did, yes. I thought for the first time very carefully about the way I did certain things and the way I felt certain ways. Prior to writing the book, I had never really given thought to the many things that I did, and I think that I have brought some useful insights, according to many of my readers.

TOL: What did you want your readers to learn from the stories you included in your memoir?

JER: I want people to see that even kids like me, who grow up under bad circumstances and who grow up with what we believe to be significant handicaps, can learn to last, triumph, and do more. I want people to see that the conventional wisdom of "you don't go to college, you're never going to amount to anything"... statements like that, which I heard all my life, are in the case of many exceptional people, simply not true. I wanted parents, special needs kids, and young people themselves to feel inspired by my story, to feel that they too can do okay.

TOL: Will you continue to write, and will you continue to write about Asperger's?

JER: Yes, I will continue to write, and my next book is going to talk about some Aspergian thinking and Aspergian behaviors, and actually it's going to talk about how normal, or neuro-typical, people can use some of my Aspergian thought processes and concepts to be more successful in their own lives.
 

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