by Jordan Sadler, SLP
John Elder Robison has just had a wonderful book published. Mr. Robison lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and teenage son; he runs a successful company, repairing and restoring fine European automobiles. Mr. Robison also happens to have Asperger's.
For much of the book, this is the way the story plays out - the fact that Mr. Robison has Asperger's takes a back seat to his fascinating life story. Despite many roadblocks - some of them enormous, such as his mother's mental health challenges and his father's alcoholism - "Look Me in the Eye" ultimately reads as a success story.
Mr. Robison was blessed with a very high level of intelligence, but what he makes clear in his book is that he was unhappy for many years. It was a long time before he found a job that fit his abilities, and his first marriage did not last. Asperger's was not an identified diagnosis when this author was a child, and none of the professionals he worked with understood his unique set of characteristics. That is, until a close friend bravely handed him Tony Attwood's book, "Asperger's Syndrome" (the link is for the current edition of this book), noting that the characteristics outlined in the book fit Mr. Robison perfectly. At age forty, Mr. Robison agreed.
The author explains the enormous shift in his understanding of himself upon reading Mr. Attwood's book and the impact this had on his entire life. The last few chapters were particularly insightful, chronicling the years after diagnosis and the ways in which Mr. Robison processes thoughts and emotions.
As a therapist I found this book to be immensely interesting. It is a rare gift to hear from this fifty-year old man exactly what he wishes he'd known about himself as a child, how his logical brain works, and what kinds of skills he would have liked to have been taught. Here are some of the highlights:
- Making eye contact with others has been difficult for him for most of his life and when he is looking at someone, he is "unable to form words". Later in life, he taught himself to glance at the eyes of a conversational partner to check in, but mainly looks away. This fundamental challenge led others to describe him as "hiding something", a "criminal", a "sociopath", and a "psycho", beginning at a young age. He states, "I came to believe what people said about me, because so many said the same thing, and the realization that I was defective hurt. I became shyer, more withdrawn."
- There is an account of a simple conversation with a good friend, in which the author details his internal dialogue and the difficulty he frequently has in knowing what the expected, socially appropriate response is. He notes, "It's clear to me that regular people have conversational capabilities far beyond mine, and their responses often have nothing at all to do with logic. I suspect normal people are hardwired to develop the ability to read social cues in a way that I am not."
- The author makes a fascinating argument that as he gained "greater insight into [his] emotional life", his logical thought processes took a nosedive; he states that when he looks at the complex electrical circuits he designed when he was younger, he is no longer able to understand them. I was glad to hear the author state clearly that he feels this was a worthwhile trade.
- Mr. Robison makes it very clear that doctors who describe children with autism and Asperger's as "preferring to play alone" (which we hear all the time), are "dead wrong". He writes, "I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others. I was alone as a result of my own limitations, and being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life."
- The author described the ways in which his wife helps him with his sensory processing challenges (e.g., sleeping "in a pile" with him, petting him when he gets jumpy), and how she deals with his anxieties. One of my favorite sections on his marriage was his extremely analytical dissection of choosing a mate; he wonders if he got the "best sister" (his wife has two sisters, or "units", as he calls them), and likens this to a man wondering for years after buying a new car if he chose the best model. Although he has heard the reactions of his neurotypical friends, he is unable to relate to their arguments because his mind works in such a strictly logical manner.
This book is a treasure for people with Asperger's as well as their families, friends, and the professionals who work with them, but it is also a very interesting book for anyone interested in human interaction and psychology. It deserves a special place on the bookshelf right next to Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet.