Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Book Review: Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's

look me in the eye book cover“Look me in the eyes, young man!”
“Nobody trusts a man who won’t look them in the eye.”
“You look like a criminal.”
“I’ve read about people like you. They have no expression because they have no feeling. Some of the worst murderers in history were sociopaths.”

These are just some of the things John Elder Robison heard as a young boy, decades before a friend handed him a book about Asperger’s Syndrome and told him, "This book describes you exactly." Hearing these predictions made Robison withdraw even further as a child as he waited for these awful things to come true. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he realized he wasn’t going to become a serial killer. By that time he had met enough shifty people who had no trouble looking him in the eye to realize that these people had no idea what they were talking about. Learning that he was not defective and that he was not alone brought great peace to the adult John Elder Robison.

Although Robison was raised by a violent, alcoholic father and an increasingly mentally unstable mother, he was luckier than most Aspergian children at that time in that he was raised in a collegiate environment, where his quirky nature and adult personality were admired by professors and students. He honed his coping skills on college campuses across America. His brother, Augusten Burroughs, chronicled the dysfunction of the Robison family in his popular memoir, Running with Scissors (made into a movie in 2006). Burroughs believes that his brother was able to survive their turbulent childhood by his ability to shut down in traumatic situations.

Robison learned early on how not to answer a question. If a kid said, “Look at my Tonka truck,” instead of blurting out “I want some cookies,” he would force himself to supply the correct response: “That’s a neat truck! Can I hold it?” These skills helped him in his teenage and adult years, and he went on to design speakers for Pink Floyd and flaming guitars for KISS before settling down in the corporate world of designing electronic games for Milton Bradley. Eventually, his expertise in automotives steered him towards his own business of repairing and restoring European automobiles.

Some who are familiar with Aspies might be surprised at the emotion that Robison brings to his story. The chapters “I Get a Bear Cub” and “Winning at Basketball,” and the epilogue about his father’s death are surprisingly touching, breaking through the common robotic barrier of an Aspie. I was especially moved by his perfectly rational reason why Aspies don’t show emotion over tragic events that don’t directly affect them: "People die every minute, all over the world. If we tried to feel sorry for every death, our little hearts would explode." And he’s absolutely right.

Look Me in the Eye is one of the few books on Asperger's Syndrome that is not a dry training manual on the condition. I will always be grateful to Robison for telling his story because someone I'm close to has Asperger's, and I can now see that this person's eccentric way of doing things makes perfectly good sense to him, even if it sometimes doesn't to me.

Augusten Burroughs interviews his big brother

Just what is Asperger's Syndrome? Asperger's is a high-functioning form of autism. A high IQ, lack of empathy, avoiding eye contact, obsession with one interest, delayed motor skills, and heightened sensitivity to loud sounds and bright lights are just some of the characteristics of the condition. It is more common in boys than girls. There is no cure for Asperger's, but there are treatments to help cope with the symptoms. The impressive list of famous Aspies have allowed some to feel pride in their diagnosis: Albert Einstein, Andy Kaufman, Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, Henry Ford, Isaac Asimov, Isaac Newton, Michael Palin, Thomas Jefferson, Vincent van Gogh, and Woody Allen.


The Official James Elder Robison Website

The Official Augusten Burroughs Website

Our JCLC medical databases offer a wealth of information on Asperger's Syndrome. Try searching in Alt HealthWatch, Health and Wellness Resource Center and Alternative Health Module, and Medline Plus (library card is required).

The National Autistic Society Homepage

O.A.S.I.S. and Wrong Planet are two resource and support sites for the Asperger's community.

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