Be Different: My Adventures with Asperger’s and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families, and Teachers
John Elder Robison (2011, Broadway Books)
A couple of years ago I wrote about John Elder Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye. In his second book, Be Different, Robison has written a guide for young people with Asperger’s, and their families and teachers. A little less funny than his memoir, it’s also considerably less tragic: since being diagnosed with Asperger’s at age forty, Robison has educated himself about the condition as it’s viewed by educators and neurologists, and helped to educate them in turn.
One thing he learned was that educators were giving Look Me in the Eye to their students with Asperger’s, and using it to start conversations about their experiences. The ways in which Robison went off the rails as a teenager, dropping out of high school and even running away to live in the woods, and the fact that he recovered to become an adult capable of work and love, must come as a tremendous relief to those kids; it’s as if they were sojourning on another planet and met someone who spoke their language.
The other thing he discovered was that professionals in the field were routinely missing signs of distress in those young people, because their behaviour was considered so odd or extreme anyway. There’s a rather staggering account, in the introduction, of Robison seeing some documentary footage of an Aspergian kid. The boy is shown with his eyes darting side to side, “...like a lone deer in a forest filled with wolves. With a pang, I recognized his look the moment I saw it. That was me, in tenth grade, at Amherst High.” But when Robison showed this scene to a therapist whom he liked and trusted, the man responded, “They call it furtive eye movement....It doesn’t mean anything.” Oh, but it does. As this was the rare human social signal he recognized without any effort at all, Robison saw that his translation needed to go both ways.
He speaks with credibility about how to live in the social world, as one who has learned the hard way. The manners he resisted learning from his grandparents as a child, thinking them arbitrary and illogical, have turned out to be practical tools for, if not making friends, at least being someone other people can make friends with. Autism-spectrum kids may have been told all their lives to conform to illogical social rules; now someone can tell them why. “In my antisocial days, dress didn’t matter, because I was an outcast everywhere. Now, when I join social groups, I realize it’s a lot easier to fit in if I’m dressed in a style that’s at least generally compatible with that of the other people. Also, I never go out in public in my underwear.”
I really enjoy the dry reserve of this kind of writing, and the straightforwardness. Robison, like others of his tribe, is literal-minded to a fault. When he was little, adults used to assume that he understood what they meant, rather than what they said, and his responses consequently made him sound like a smart aleck, much to his confusion. Not that he’s serious all the time: when his brother expressed trepidation at the eyes of wild animals eight feet off the ground, Robison loses no time. “‘Those are pine demons,’ I say with a serious expression. ‘Fierce fighters.’ Nothing more needs to be said.” If his brother wants to know that the eyes belong to squirrels perched in trees, he’s going to have to go find out for himself.
In fact, comfort in natural settings is one of the strengths of Robison’s neural difference. He feels at peace there. He is attuned to the wild from long experience running around in the woods as a boy, and from hiking wilderness trails as a man. “All that time, I was aware of possible dangers, but I never felt threatened. And my confidence was justified, because nothing ever ate me.”
He also feels at home in the logical world of electrical engineering, which led to a career building amplifiers for rock and roll bands. His similar fascination with mechanical engineering progressed from bicycle gears to Range Rover repairs. It’s not that these subjects came naturally, exactly, but that Robison was interested enough to spend hours and hours concentrating on them to the point of mastery. One of his key pieces of advice for young geeks is to find something to focus on that people will pay them to do.
Reading Be Different, the rest of us neurotypicals (‘nypicals’, in Robison’s handy abbreviation) are eavesdropping on advice that’s not directly meant for us, but I think that’s all right. Enjoy it for the distinctive way Robison’s mind works. Appreciate his compassion for his younger self, and the ingenuity of his approach to situations he’s not naturally good at. Read it for insight into people around you whose behavior is significantly different from what you expect; it may be that their perceptions are different, too. And in our own ways, don’t we all struggle with the question of when to conform, and when to do things our own way?
I started reviewing books more than fifteen years ago for Voices, the occasional newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The newsletter has evolved to a different form, but I still try to write something every month. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!