Author: John Elder Robison
Rating: 7 out of 10
Reviewer: Ying-yue Zhao
Ever wondered what the world looked like to other people? I think all of us have gone through rough times when we felt like we didn’t fit in and/or no one understands us (aka adolescence), but what if your mind was really wired differently? John Elder Robison’s autobiography provides some insight into what it was like to grow up with Asperger’s syndrome (an Autism Spectrum Disorder). What was more intriguing is the fact that he was not diagnosed until he was in his forties.
The book starts by depicting Robison’s childhood, detailing failed yet humorous social exchanges with other children: “At recess, I walked over to Chuckie and patted her on the head. My mother had shown me how to pet my poodle on the head to make friends with him… Smack! She hit me. Startled, I ran away. That didn’t work, I said to myself. Maybe I have to pet her a little longer to make friends. I can pet her with a stick so she can’t smack me. But the teacher intervened“.
Having parents who also had issues did not help the awkwardness: his father was an alcoholic professor who had an affair and his mother was a housewife who had semi-regular mental breakdowns. By the time that the author was a teenager, he was labelled everything from “a weird screwed-up kid” to “social deviant” yet he scored highly on IQ tests. Some of the pranks he played on others when he was young were elaborate and disturbing (he staged a hanging of a mannequin and then spied on the police), it showed that he was bright but bored and misdirected. Fortunately, his talent for understanding how things worked led to his success in electronics and engineering.
Robison’s career has varied from being a sound and special effects engineer for the band KISS, to being a executive clumsily climbing the corporate ladder, to being the owner of an auto repair business that specialises in high-end luxury cars. The anecdotes about his past mischief were gutsy and entertaining, he has been in jail with a bunch of druggie musicians, camped in the woods with a hermit war veteran and customised guitars with smoke bombs.
One of the main characteristics of someone who has Asperger’s syndrome is having difficulties dealing with social interactions. The inability to successfully use non-verbal behavioural cues such as eye-to-eye contact, appropriate facial expressions and body language is common. The title of the book “Look me in the eye” is a familiar phrase that the author heard while growing up; people would often interpret his reluctance to look them in the eyes as him hiding something or being dishonest.
The style of writing was easy to read although occasionally the author would go off into a tangent with intricate technical detail, which did get a bit annoying but it was understandable. Robison was successful in expressing his thought patterns and emotions in his writing. Having been a psychology student, I really appreciated reading a first hand account of a mental disorder. I had learnt about Asperger’s syndrome in the DSM-IV (the diagnostic bible for psychological disorders), the descriptions were dry and unexciting; it was a definite contrast to this very personal account.
Despite the set backs, there are plenty of successful Aspergians (Robison’s term for people with Asperger’s) out there: Heather from Season 9 of America’s Next Top Model as well as Animal Science Pioneer Temple Grandin. Although I haven’t yet read “The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time” by Mark Haddon, I have been told that it was excellent and the 15-year-old protagonist from that book has Asperger’s. In the author’s note at the beginning of the book John Elder Robison stated “I hope this book demonstrates once and for all that however robotic we Aspergians might seem, we do have deep emotions”. He certainly did.
Causes John Robison Supports
I support Asperger and autism advocacy groups. I also support the University of Massachusetts