Saturday, October 25, 2008

Asperger's With a Side of Fries

I'd seen the book Look me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison in stores before. It looked like an interesting read, but I had the opportunity to hear him speak a few weeks ago and wound up picking up an autographed copy of it. It is an interesting and terrific read.

Asperger's Syndrome is what's known as an "autism-spectrum" disability. People who have it are deaf to social cues and often appear robotic. If you smile at them, they don't smile back because they don't know that's what you're expecting. If you start a conversation with them, perhaps by saying "How are you today?" they're likely to reply with the first thing they were thinking until they learn to do otherwise. There's a lot more to it than this, but these aspects of the syndrome seem to have the most profound effect on the lives of those who have it. Robison grew up in an era when developmental disabilities were very black-and-white: either you were retarded and had to live in a state home, or you were normal. Until he was 40, he had no idea that this diagnosis existed or could explain his life.

Even if a book about someone with this disability doesn't sound interesting to you, I reccommend this one anyway. Aside from the Asperger's, John Elder Robison has led an interesting life. He is the older brother of Augustyn Burrows, but enough years separate them that he'd escaped the madness chronicled in Running With Scissors, although he does have a bit part in that book. Still, he didn't exactly have a happy childhood. His is an old-school dysfunctional family, not the Little-Miss-Sunshine-put-the-fun-in-dysfunction type, but a real one, where his father was drinking himself to death and his mother was warning the kids about the dragons that floated on the ceiling and one or the other of them was committed every other week. Things were so bad that when he dropped out of high school, no one noticed.

Lots of kids who grow up like that come to bad ends. But in a way, Robison's Asperger's actually saved him. Another characteristic of the syndrome is an uncanny ability to focus and an extremely logical brain. For Robison, this manifested itself in an extreme mechanical inclination. He loved to fix shit. He also loved music, and wound up hooking up with a local band and working on their sound equipment. This ultimately led to a gig with Pink Floyd, and later on, designing special effects for Kiss. Ever see videos of their guitars that launched rockets and smoke bombs? Robison made those. He also designed electronic games for Milton Bradley and currently fixes high-end cars.

This book was a shockingly quick read for me -- I started it Wednesday evening this week and finished it on Thursday afternoon. I know he has another book that is either out right now or is coming out soon. I suspect he could have made the story of his life over 500 pages, as it was so eventful and interesting. He's an excellent storyteller and the book is also riotously funny in some places. (I thought I was going to pee my pants laughing during his long conversation with his young son about Santa's year-round job at a shipyard). Like A. Manette Ansay's book Limbo, which I wrote about last fall, Robison doesn't ask you to feel sorry for him, and even presents positive aspects of his disability. The book also reminded me of how much I enjoyed Running With Scissors, and I'll have to look for further works from both him and his brother the next time I'm at the library.