November 22, 2017

LJ Talks to John Elder Robison

By LJ Staff

John Elder RobisonWe think of Asperger’s syndrome (considered a milder form of autism) as a disability that prevents someone from leading a full life. But can it be a disability if you don’t know you have it? John Elder Robison, older brother of Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors), was self-diagnosed with Asperger’s in his forties but not before he built a successful business, designed pyrotechnical guitars for KISS and had a family. All this and more are chronicled in his satisfying biography, Look Me in the Eye (see the review in LJ 8/07). LJ reviewer Corey Seeman (Kresge Business Administration Library University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) sat down with Robison to discuss how Asperger’s has affected his life.

LJ: In what ways could Asperger’s be seen as a positive character trait for someone in business?

JER: People with Asperger’s can do really well in many highly technical occupations. Car repair (my field) is a good example. Software engineering is another. Some experts refer to Asperger’s as “the engineer mind.” I’m driven to know everything there is to know about the machines I work with. I’m also very direct and good in situations where I have to explain how something works or how it failed or broke. I’m very precise and detail-oriented. There are many, many work situations where these traits would be beneficial. To me, Spock on the original Star Trek is a great example of a functional Aspergian in the workplace.

What is your favorite car to fix?

That’s hard. Probably classic Land Rovers because they are such rugged, simple beasts. My next favorite would be the old Rolls Royces because they have such beautiful craftsmanship. And I like the newer BMWs because they are just such technological masterpieces.

Can you see patterns in machines that others cannot? How do you work with people in the shop?

It’s hard to know what I see that others don’t because I can’t see in their minds. Life experience has shown me that I often have an unusually keen insight into the workings of mechanical and electronic systems. I am often able to solve problems others can’t by using my focused reasoning powers. I know I can visualize how things work in my mind and run different scenarios to figure out why some certain thing may be happening. This ability to run “computer simulations” in my head is uncommon, based upon what others tell me.

In our shop, I’m seen as “sort of eccentric,” but I think I’m accepted as the technical leader. There are some things each guy knows more about than me, but I have a lot of general knowledge about what we do, and they respect that.

What can adults who think they have Asperger’s take away from your book?

First, my book may give them some insight into their own conditions. I was miserable for years because I felt like I was a fraud and a misfit. Now I understand my place in the greater scheme of things, and I’m happy with it.

Do you see Asperger’s traits in your brother or your son?

My son is a little bit Aspergian and has some other learning disabilities. For example, if you draw a chess board on a blackboard and ask him to mark a sheet on his desk to follow your moves, he will do it wrong. But if you tell him, “move to row three, column two,” he does that fine. My brother had learning disabilities and eccentricities as a child, too. We’re all eccentric to varying degrees. Did the kids you grew up with dress in aluminum foil? Did you? My brother did. I dressed like a barbarian and retreated to the woods as a feral child. But look at us now. Functional, but different.

Asperger’s is often viewed as a disability. However, in your situation, did it actually better enable you to live with your family?

My brother thinks my Aspergian logicality and detachment sheltered me from the worst of my family’s craziness. I think on balance, Asperger’s has bestowed rare gifts upon me and made me the creative person I am. Without Asperger’s, I would not have created any of the things you read about in my book, and I wouldn’t have written the book in the first place. That said, Asperger’s affects other people differently. And for some, they are indeed impaired in key ways, and some struggle with daily life tasks. I’m very fortunate.

What is normal?

That’s a good question. What do you believe is normal? Your normal and my normal may differ. Whose is right? Yours? Mine? Can both be right? In some cases, things are absolute. A particular radio wave may have a wavelength of 2.2 meters. And that’s it. It’s not 2.1, and it’s not 2.4. But when we move away from measurable absolutes, things get harder. Do you like the way I act? Which painting do you like better? For those things there are no absolute answers, only opinions. My book discusses this question at some length. For what I am, I’m normal. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by mental health workers, I’m Aspergian.

Given that you are in western Massachusetts, have you ever thought what type of guitar you would have built for James Taylor?

I have never actually considered a guitar for James Taylor, but since you asked… James is primarily an acoustic musician. My guitars were kick-ass, fire-breathing beasts that I created for people playing heavy metal. Loud, flashy, electric music. I would have been shocked beyond words if an acoustic musician such as James Taylor had asked me to build him an instrument.

Still, if James Taylor had a problem with bears raiding his garbage, and he wanted a guitar capable of vaporizing the bear and the dumpster, and maybe even the side of the house, I’m his man. At least, I was back then. Today, I am aware of our responsibility to care for our environment and all God’s creatures, and I’d seek to relocate the bear rather than atomize him. So I don’t know where that would leave James Taylor, guitarwise.

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