American Psychological Association
Boston, August 14-17 2008
The room was packed this morning for this one, which maybe should not have been surprising. A unique and "successful" person, almost in the way described yesterday by Malcolm Gladwell, a self-described "freak" named John Elder Robison presented a dynamic and fascinating account of...
"My Life With Asperger's"
This was a presentation which was truly unique and quite illuminating, in the tradition of Temple Grandin and Tony Atwood, famed for their overcoming powerful challenges and sharing their brilliance and their creativity with those interested in their *abilities* rather than only their *dis*abilities, no matter how striking they may be. Psychologists and non-psychologists alike, including the legions who were fascinated by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (a fictionalized account of a high-functioning autistic-spectrum child) will likely find this man's real-life story equally compelling. His book and website offer much more, but here's his own condensed life story, first-hand.)
A long-time interest of mine, it does seem as if Asperger Syndrome (AS) is truly becoming much more widely recognized and appreciated.
John Elder Robison (Photo by Fenichel)
Plenary Address #2149
MY LIFE WITH ASPERGER'S - as told first-person, by John Elder Robison.
Mr. Robison introduced himself, very humbly and graciously (as he faced a sea of psychologists), as someone who had spent nearly 40 years "pretending to be normal" as best he could, until diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 40. Throughout his childhood he could not relate to others and found comfort with machines. His amazing story which followed began by noting that from his unusual beginnings he ended up creating fire-breathing guitars for the heavy-metal band Kiss, and then designing toys (including the precursor of Nintendo).
He paused to express his awe of all the professionals around him, with so much "legitimacy" that it made him, who feels himself "an outlaw" by comparison, to be "just so honored". Humble, but then increasingly comfortable and animated with addressing this large audience, he paused first for a moment to share how he couldn't help noticing all different kinds of stripes and ribbons on badges. Even the publishers of his new book (Random House) were there with badges, saying "Exhibitor". He noted that he's "only" a non-member guest, and while clearly he's now become comfortable talking about his giftedness for some things, most of his life was spent feeling damaged or freakish, despite being so successful and trying to appear "normal" with mixed success.
"I grew up in the 50's/60's. Nobody knew what Asperger's was. If you were a kid and didn't fit in, the doctors would say 'he'll outgrow it'. If not, then they threaten you - with institutions. Both of my parents did time in North Hampton." Both were respected academics, as well, which gave him a chance to be "eccentric" and also have university settings to explore, where his parents' colleagues were also tolerant and acceptant of his being different. "In school they'd say 'leave him alone, he wants to be by himself'. As a grownup I know it's not true. What I see is children like me who are just crushed. I was called Monkey Face, 'retard'... and we didn't know what to do about it."
One thing "in my favor", he said, was his father's position (chair of philosophy at a university) and his mother's teaching/painting lifestyle, plus also "being in a college town" with many academics who enjoy hearing precocious children talk about bauxite properties and so forth. [See my study guide on AS which includes a classic NY Times article describing this precisely, what is often described as "The Little Professor" syndrome.] Looking back now, Robison says it's a wonder he didn't end up completely nonverbal in his early years. School almost did that to him, and other children. He had a strong preference for "intellectually agile people" and thus was more comfortable with adults than peers. This was for his entire youth - "Today kids like me grow up and get diagnosed at an early age". He, however, ended up dropping out of high school "because the teachers were becoming the real enemy. What put them over the edge [the teachers] was my love for machines, and for transportation." He got a motorcycle for $25, unregistered, and while others rode bikes, he drove this to school and then proceeded to try to stow it in the school courtyard so the police wouldn't see it.
After finding school unsatisfying (and clearly feeling unwelcome) "I went out and I found the world of musicians. Like many kids, I loved music. I have always had the ability to *see* music, I see the flow of the waves." [Note this is similar to some musical savants' description, as featured on 60 Minutes and other TV shows.] While enjoying music he was also enjoying how he'd been seemingly "adopted" by the university's engineering department, the son of a faculty member, "like a pet", and he was fascinated by all the equipment, machines, etc. "Twenty-five percent of engineers, we now know, might be called Asperger Syndrome. I *knew* they were freaks!". (For him that's not always a negative; he sensed a kindred spirit on some level.)
Robison began seeking music-related work, and went to Woodstock (music festival) and Boston, and ended up working for a sound company and being around the equipment and bands, including Black Sabbath, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, Judas Priest and others. If you listened to their records, he said, "you heard my strange sounds". His talents were being discovered and tapped by rock stars and sound engineers. "For an Aspergerian misfit like me, the music biz is a great place to be. [Some of the band members] were obviously freakier than me! All coked up, speed, whiskey and beer..." Once he was watching a guitarist digging into his guitar body and Robison asked him what he was doing. The guitarist (from Kiss) "said he wanted to make a guitar blow fire". Robison immediately said "that's not how" to go about it, that he needed to build a metal compartment lined with asbestos and accommodating of smoke bombs. The next he knew he received a FedEx package with a Gibson guitar and his mission to do it. Obviously it worked and the band was known for years for their pyrotechnics. But they were unusual people, thought Robison, clearly not Aspergian (his preferred term over "Aspy" which reminds him of a snake) but "seriously neurologically different, too."
Other adventures included his collaborating with a friend whose gift was welding, and studying medieval weaponry, and then building a working catapult which could hurl a fuel pump 1/4 mile. He and his friend also had an interest in casting body parts and one day casted a set of arms and hands, fingernails and all, and then planted them in the ground so there were "Andy arms" growing from the ground.
Returning to his blossoming rock music career, he found it striking that "I played every concert venue in North America and I didn't speak to a single girl." Same with drugs - they were everywhere around him, but especially sensitive to their evils given how he'd see his father become mean when imbibing alcohol - he avoided drugs and alcohol.
In the late 70's Robison decided he wanted a "real job" and he went to Milton Bradley, with his track record in music innovation, and sought a position. Milton-Bradley at the time was just becoming more electronics oriented in their toy line, with games like "Simon", and the beginnings of speech recognition toys. The company was eager for electronic applications. They saw his work with Kiss, hired him, and his transition from rock music to the corporate world began. Very quickly, "I found there were a lot of freaks there too, in the engineering department. We had a good time there." He ended up developing something called "microvision" which is the basis for Nintendo and the first talking toys and toys with speech recognition. "Aspergians are good with creative things", he understands well now. But sadly for him, "They promoted me. Now I got budgets and employee reviews. They told me 'you're a smart guy but you're not a team player'. I said 'Of course not! I was designing circuit boards at age 13 and I wasn't on your team.'"
His conclusion, after the inevitable result of this Aspergian candor: I was failing here too, the corporate world. No matter that he was now a division head, etc. He quit. And he set up his garage to accommodate custom work on Rolls Royce engines. Hey, "they're good machines!". He ended up creating Robison Services which in turn became the largest independent service company of its type in the Northeast. And, "they didn't come to schmooze and talk about the kids", which was not his gift. They wanted their machines lovingly cared for.
One recent client was a psychologist. Nowadays, there is much greater awareness of Asperger Syndrome and various spectrum features. The psychologist gave him a book, by Tony Atwood, a subjective account of his life with Asperger's. [An article and link to his site are on my AS reference page, here.]
Reading Atwood's book - a first-hand account of Asperger's Syndrome - "was so wonderfully liberating! To read that I am normal... for what I am". He explained that he prefers being called "Aspergian" over "an Aspy" as it's more "distinguished", less snake-ish, and when he asks himself what the ever-logical Spock (of Star Trek) would think, "I'm sure he would refer to the Aspergians." OK, that's settled for me! :-)
One big factor in his continuing self-growth and self-acceptance, he reflected, is that "now I get feedback". He enjoys sharing. He told the hall full of psychologists and students and parents, "When young people come in, they might be Aspergian, and when they look at the floor and can't go on, it's very easy to point out all the stuff that's wrong to the parent. Keep in mind: it's a lot more work to find the *good* parts, but to do so is much more rewarding! For example: Finding a six year old is a math prodigy... Keep in mind, some people do regress, but there are many high functioning autism/Aspergians who get *better* with age! "
Robison suggests visiting his website where one can find photos there, by his parents, documenting how *he* was functioning 40 years ago, by himself, in the sandbox: "A lost,miserable boy." He wished he had a video clip. "I was worse than many people I see now. [But] think of me and Temple Grandin. You just never know."
He ended by revealing how he'd had a revelation about neurological functioning when he learned of a new treatment at Beth Israel/Harvard, called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and he in fact "captured" two of the team to attend his presentation, there in the room. He was very excited about what happened to him after treatment he volunteered for, as a "guinea pig". Lo and behold, he said, "like 'Flowers for Algernon', now with the change I can go into a room with 50 people and engage 49. It's completely upside down!" Before he'd be the one in 50 who could not engage the other 49. "It's like magic that you can supplement with therapy", he said.
Harkening back to Sternberg's notions of analytical, practical, creative intellectual ability, clearly this was someone before us who was brilliant in several spheres. As Sternberg and Gladwell both addressed - the phenomenon of *success* seems both constitutional and contextual. Here's a "lost miserable boy" considered a freak who has succeeded both economically and in terms of self-knowledge and (increasingly) self-acceptance.
I bought his book ("Look Me in the Eye") later, and chatted briefly with him. He autographed it, too: "For Dr Mike, a fan of Aspergians like us. JER. Woof!"