Tuesday, May 23, 2017

LOOK ME IN THE EYE: My Life With Asperger's – John Elder Robison

Should you happen to make the acquaintance of any Aspergian but me, beware. You just might find yourself face down at the bottom of a hole that's deeper than you are tall, hearing your acquaintance laugh as he or she walks off and leaves you there.

I know the above generalization isn't fair, as I'm aware of only one Aspergian who did this. But I offer it as an example of the sort of socially inappropriate and sometimes dangerous “tricks” one can encounter among the often hyper-brilliant, super-delicate social outliers named after the late Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician credited with diagnosing autistic symptoms in children in 1944. Modern psychology classifies this syndrome on the mild end of the autistic spectrum.
I exclude myself from the danger list mainly because my Asperger's lacks the hyper brilliance. Alas, though, the fragility is mine in spades. It's what turns my face red whenever someone I don't know looks at me for longer than a passing glance. My long-dead mother's long ago warning kicking in maybe, making me unconsciously afraid the stranger's going to offer me candy. But this is not about me. This is about me. This is about John Elder Robison and his memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's.
Robison's the only Aspergian I know of who has lowered someone head first into a deep pit and then gone back to the house for something to eat. The victim was his younger brother. “When I came out,” he says, “Varmint was nowhere to be seen. I had expected he would have gotten out in the time I was gone, but he was still in there. I kicked some wood chips in to see if filling the hole would cause him to emerge. He just yelled. I pulled him out before the neighbors heard him.” When his brother, eight years younger, complained, Robison reminded him the object was to test whether the hole would make a good trap. Playing such “tricks” had become Robison's way of winning acceptance despite his odd behavior, which ordinarily repelled other children from him.
Hans Asperger and young patient
Robison wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's until he was forty, and had overcome many of the condition's more obvious symptoms. But he didn't fool a therapist friend, who gently confronted him after noticing “certain odd things about me” but never mentioning them. He gave Robison a book, Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. “I picked it up. Warily. 'What the hell is this?'” He started reading, and recognized himself in the list of symptoms. These included problems with body language such as eye-to-eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, postures, and gestures, and a lack of emotional interaction with others:
It did fit me. Completely. It was like a revelation. I realized that all the psychologists and psychiatrists and mental heath workers I had been sent to as a child had completely missed what [his friend] had seen.
As a child, I had been told I was smart but I was lazy. Reading the pages, I realized I wasn’t lazy, just different.
I knew that I did not look at people when I talked to them. Hell, I had been beaten up and criticized for that all through my childhood. But until I read that book I had never realized my behavior was unusual. I had never understood why people treated me the way they did. It had always seemed so mean, so unfair. It had never occurred to me that other people might find what I did (or did not do) naturally disconcerting. The answer to “Why won’t you look me in the eye, young man?” was right there in the book.
The realization was staggering. There are other people like me. So many, in fact, that they have a name for us.
I kept reading, willing my eyes to pick up the pace. My head spun.
“I had always felt like a fraud or, even worse, a sociopath waiting to be found out,” he says. “But the book told a very different story. I was not a heartless killer waiting to harvest my first victim. I was normal, for what I am.”

Being a “normal” Aspergian has positive sides, as well, one gracing some people with an exceptionally detailed memory. Another, great mental speed. “No one knows why one person has a gift like this and another doesn’t,” he says, “but I’ve met other Aspergian people with savantlike abilities like mine. In my opinion, part of this ability—which I seem to have been born with—comes from my extraordinary powers of concentration. I have an extremely sharp focus.
These heightened abilities along with a love for mechanical things, an uncommon capacity for patience, and a taste for audacity were his ticket out of hell.
Dropping his brother into the hole was an early example of his mischievous yen for risk. He found that playing pranks in school made him popular despite his odd social behavior. “In school, I became the class clown. Out of school, I became a trickster. I made quite a few trips to the principal’s office in those years. But it was worth it.
I was good at thinking up tricks. When I did, the other kids laughed with me, not at me. We all laughed at the teachers or whomever else I poked fun at. As long as my pranks lasted, I was popular. It felt great, having other kids admire me and like me.”
These practical jokes grew in sophistication until they started showing “a nasty edge.” He blames this on sadness at how other kids had treated him over the years that curdled into a simmering anger. Fortunately no one was injured, but Robison understands he came close to disaster. “If I had not found electronics and music, I might well have come to a bad end” he says. His route to salvation started at age thirteen with the Christmas gift of a RadioShack computer kit. He assembled it, and moved on to tinkering with old radios and TVs. Before long he was devising improvements to electronic guitar amplifiers, making them louder and “hotter”, and by the time he was sixteen he'd dropped out of school and was hanging out in bars applying his innovations to equipment for local bands.
Soon the musicians and I moved from changing the sound of the amplifier to creating entirely new sound effects. In those days, reverb and tremolo were the only effects available to most musicians. I began to experiment, producing new effects, new sounds.” Word spread, he began traveling with bands. One day his path crossed that of Ace Frehley, guitarist with the headliner band KISS. Frehley was trying futilely to rig his guitar with a smoke bomb. Robison stepped in and got it to work. This led to touring gigs with KISS devising the special effects that would give the band its signature pyrotechnically spectacular shows.

Robison's interests and skills grew beyond the music scene, taking him into the corporate world where he helped design some of the first video games and talking toys. He rose into management positions, but soon found his technical talents atrophying as he struggled to improve his social skills:
There was a trade-off for that increased emotional intelligence. I look at circuits I designed twenty years ago and it’s as if someone else did them.
Some of my designs were true masterpieces of economy and functionality. Many people told me they were expressions of a creative genius. And today I don’t understand them at all. When I look at those old drawings, I am reminded of a book I read as a teenager, Flowers for Algernon. Scientists took a retarded janitor and made him a genius, but it didn’t last. His brilliance faded away before his eyes. That’s how I feel sometimes, looking back at the creative engineering I’ve done. Those designs were the fruit of a part of my mind that is no longer with me. I will never invent circuits like that again. I may conceive of something like Ace Frehley’s light guitar, but someone else will have to design it.
Despite this shift in skills, he says some of the old hangups lurk nearby. “I have taught myself to act 'normal.' I can do it well enough to fool the average person for a whole evening, maybe longer. But it all falls apart if I hear something that elicits a strong emotional reaction from me that is different from what people expect. In an instant, in their eyes, I turn into the sociopathic killer I was believed to be forty years ago.”
These days he owns a specialty automobile service company in Springfield, Mass. He lectures, is involved in autism research and is the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary.
He cites a 2007 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that one person in one-hundred-fifty falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
Asperger’s is not a disease. It’s a way of being,” he concludes. “There is no cure, nor is there a need for one.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


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  2. I have little experience with Asperger's and this is very interesting. I do know several members of my (extended) family who have behaviors that to me seem like autism but are so slight as to be difficult to diagnose. I think it is true that many people have some element of Asperger's without knowing it.

    1. I saw nothing of it in myself, Tracy, when I first read this book about 10 years ago. This time, tho, it came thru loud and clear. The realization has taken a load of lingering guilt off my chest. And it's made me more cautious.