Saturday, August 1, 2009

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's - John Elder Robison

Earlier this year, I read Augusten Burrough's memoir A Wolf at the Table. I wondered in my review about the life of Burrough's brother who was briefly mentioned in the book - and an anonymous reader of the blog informed me he actually wrote his own memoir - this book - Look Me in the Eye - about his life growing up with Asperger's. Robison's book is interesting from a number of perspectives. The first is that he is Burroughs's brother, and lived through much of the same abuse and turmoil. But, at 8 years older, he also has many memories of life before Burroughs - as he attempted to navigate the world recognizing that something about him was different, but never being able to figure it out. Decades before the Asperger's diagnosis existed, Robison went through life being yelled at for his inability to look people in the eye. Unable to read facial cues or understand the give and take of a "normal" conversation, he was labeled a deviant or sociopath and consistently told that there must be something wrong with him and that he would end up in prison. The more people pushed him away, the more Robison retreated into his own world. Despite this, Robison found that he had an interest in and an aptitude for electronics. He loved to tinker with things, break them apart and fix them again. He also had a fascination with music. So, after dropping out of high school, he went on the road with a variety of musicians, including KISS, maintaining their equipment and designing elaborate pyrotechnics for their performances. As Robison tells his life story, he points out the areas he was able to succeed in, and those in which he experienced failures, because of the limitations of Aspergers. In the 1990s, a friend of Robison's informed him of this diagnosis. With a whole new explanation available to him, Robison began to better understand the way his mind worked, why he behaved certain ways - but most importantly, why it didn't make him a bad person. With the help of supportive friends and determination, he in a sense trained himself to minimize actions that made him appear awkward to others in social settings, and he allowed himself to take pride in his abilities. There is a common perception that people with Asperger's lack the ability to express empathy - and because of this that they must be inherently devoid of emotion. Robison expresses, often painfully, the real truth about himself - that while empathy may be difficult to express, he was never diminished in his ability to feel, to hurt, and to love. Robison's insight into his own experience is remarkable - his desire to make connections in the face of rejection is heartbreaking, but eye opening. While Robison is clearly an incredibly intelligent individual, often times his observations and his conclusions are childlike in their simplicity, but refreshing in their honesty. Because I am not into electronics myself, much of Robison's description of his work throughout the book was not the most interesting to me - but his self-analysis, especially with respect to his relationships with the people in his family, more than made up for it. I'm eager now to read the rest of Burroughs's books, and many books recommended by Robison written by other Aspergians (his word for those with Aspergers).

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