Author: John Elder Robison
APA Style Citation
Robison, J. E. (2008). look me in the eye: my life with asperger’s. New York, New York: Random House.
John Elder Robinson expands on his experience with Asperger’s told in part by his brother (Augusten Burroughs) in the book Running With Scissors. John Elder struggled for a good part of his life without the knowledge that he had Autism (referred to in the book as Asperger’s but classified today as Autism). Autism was not well understood when John Elder was young and was often confused with schizophrenia or depression. It is important that we understand the behaviors and thoughts of those with Autism because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 1 in 150 people are on the autistic spectrum. John Elder describes Autism as a way of being rather than a disease for which there is no cure or need for a cure. Rather, he advocates for a better understanding of the disorder.
The title of the book comes from the fact that John Elder was often reprimanded for not looking people in the eye. When he was young, he had a very specific way of playing and could not understand that others might want to play differently. He never mixed his foods or the colors of the blocks. People would ask John Elder a question and he would respond with whatever was on his mind rather than addressing the question that was asked. He had a difficult time making friends because other children did not understand the way he played. He did not have the kind of empathy others had which made people think he was a bad kid. Because he heard this often enough that he eventually came to believe that it was true. John Elder’s father was an alcoholic and his mother was likely schizophrenic, which added more conflict to his already troubled childhood. He loved but tormented his younger brother to whom he referred to as “Snort” (he gave everyone names of his choosing). John Elder was brutally honest which also got him into trouble. Eventually, he used his ability to focus to come up with elaborate pranks, which made him popular for a time with the other children in school, and he enjoyed making them laugh.
As a boy, John Elder was interested in dinosaurs, tanks, ships, planets, bulldozers, cars and airplanes. When he was a teenager he was introduced to electronics and this became his passion and primary focus. He loved to take things apart and build transistors, televisions, and radios and eventually he began building and fixing amplifiers. Often, those with Autism have a savant like mind for visualization. John Elder could visualize sounds waves and the devices he wanted to build. Local musicians found out about his talent and he began fixing their amplifiers and improving their sound. He was welcomed by the local music scene and began spending much of his time in clubs and concerts. Eventually he dropped out of high school (despite incredibly high standardized test scores) and moved out of his dysfunctional parents home. While he was working on amplifiers, he encountered the members of KISS who were interested in creating a smoking guitar. John Elder made their vision come to life and ultimately began working for the band full-time creating complex pyrotechnics. The members of the band referred to him as “Ampie” and were thrilled with his work. His job with the band was exciting but John Elder did not enjoying the partying life style that came with life on the road with a rock band. He had a girlfriend who enjoyed electronics and helped him with his projects with whom he wanted to be with more often. He left the musical circuit for a life at Milton Bradley’s electronics division as a research engineer, where he found others other engineers he could relate to and felt more at home. John Elder was never interested in small talk and was so logical that sometimes his “gruff” manner was upsetting to those to whom he had to report. He eventually learned to ask about people’s families and interests before diving into the conversation he really wanted to have and was pleased to see that people responded positively. This process was far more methodical for John Elder that it might be for others, but with practice he learned proper social etiquette. He eventually moved on to a corporate job but did not find this satisfying and today he owns an auto body shop and buys, fixes and sells older cars. He is able to complete repairs that others cannot and has found a strong following. He generally works on his own (although he employs a staff of 12) and his passion for cars allows him to find this work stimulating. John Elder has a son he calls “Cubbie” though he is no longer married to Cubbie’s mother. He loves taking Cubbie to train yards and to see ships and cars. He also enjoys making up wild stories, which Cubbie loves.
John Elder explains that although many Autistic individuals are introverted, it is not that they want to be alone but are afraid of the negative feedback they often receive in social situations. Their focus and intellect in a given domain sometimes are not recognized because of their lack of interpersonal skills. John Elder’s obsession with cars allows him to succeed in his current business just as his obsession with electronics allowed him to work with KISS. John Elder finds that his directness actually benefits his current position because he can tell people in a very precise fashion what needs to be fixed on their cars. An acquaintance gave John Elder a book to read about Autism in which he recognized many of his own behaviors. Rather then be upset by the diagnosis, John Elder was relieved that there was a name for his “odd” behaviors. He felt comforted that there were other people like him and he was not arrogant or lazy, as he had heard for so many years. He suddenly realized that many of his difficulties with social interactions and inappropriate facial expressions were because he was autistic not sadistic. Once he understood the differences between his behavior and those of “normal” individuals, he began to make a concerted effort to look people in the eye and listen to what they were saying. Many people commented on how much more friendly he seems than before. He has even taken comfort in a recent article that suggests Asperger’s is an essential part of creative genius.
John Elder’s unique traits are still there, in bed he likes to pile pillows on top of him, logically computes whether he married the best of the sisters (his current wife is one of three girls), and he asks his wife to scratch his back because this calms him down. John Elder likes the quote, “When you’ve met one Aspergian, you’ve met one Asbergian.” He recognizes his unique and different traits and rather than try to pretend he is someone that he is not, he has embraced his uniqueness and learned to find it’s best aspects.
OASIS Online Asperger’s Syndrome Information
America Asperger’s Association
John Elder Robison Website
John Elder Robison Blog
John Elder Robison on the Today Show
Autism Center for Excellence
National Institute of Health: Autism Fact Sheet
10 tips on how to communicate with individuals with Autism
Communication and Interaction: National Autistic Society
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)
Daniel Tamment: Born on a Blue Day
Temple Grandin: Thinking in Pictures