I had the honour of hearing Naomi Tutu speak at a conference I attended recently inVancouver. Her message was powerful on several fronts: first, she called on each of us to be a ‘voice of courage’ in the face of injustice. She also urged us to celebrate – not hide – our differences.
I was thinking of her words as I finished reading John Elder Robison’s latest book, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian¸ on the plane on the way home.
Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye, was one of the first books I read about Asperger’s after Ryan’s diagnosis, so I had high expectations for his second effort. I wasn’t disappointed.
LikeTemple Grandin, Robison has mined his own experience to help fellow Aspies, parents, and teachers better understand life on the Autism Spectrum. Today Robison is a successful author and businessman whose passion for electronics has helped him build a fulfilling life for himself and his family.
His approach won me over at first glance – here is a man who is celebrating the gifts that come with Asperger’s and sharing ideas for leveraging those gifts. “Asperger’s was a disability – that’s what the books said. I’m still not sure I believe that,” he writes early on.
He then goes on to catalogue his first-hand experience of the brain differences that come with ASD and their benefits: his incredibly visual mind, his ability to remain calm and unemotional in taxing situations, his intense focus, concentration, and ability to learn quickly in areas of interest, his use of logic to solve social problems and his attention to detail.
But make no mistake, the knowledge Robison shares with us is hard-won. Before his Asperger’s diagnosis in his 40s, he spent at least some of his youth knowing he was very different from his peers (but not the reason why) and wondering if he was going to grow up to be a serial killer. “Learning I was a perfectly normal Aspergian male (and not a freak) was a revelation that changed my life,” he says.
Robison gives us a great guided tour of the Aspergian mind, reminding me of the wiring differences that explain some challenging Aspie behaviours:
- Not responding when called: hyper-focus on internal thoughts, special interests, or sensory sensitivities
- Negativity/pessimism: smaller range of emotions in a short time period, difficulty with perspective, planning for the worst to reduce anxiety, getting stuck on thoughts
- Inappropriate responses to difficult situations: hyper-focus on internal thoughts, inability to read others
He wraps up his book with a theme that I’ve read about before – Aspergians identifying and using their special interests to find meaningful work after school. But Robison adds two other, equally important elements, to the equation – focus and hard work and resolve. And as a parent, that’s the challenge that lies ahead.
I hope Robison keeps on writing and I’ve got my fingers crossed that he will one day visitHalifaxfor a lecture or book tour. Maybe I’ll invite him myself. I’m sure we could fill a hall at SMU or Dal with parents and kids who would be eager to hear his story and his ideas firsthand.