LOOK ME IN THE EYE: MY LIFE WITH ASPERGER’S by John Elder Robison
|Asperger’s Syndrome is virtually unknown to most people, and up until three years ago, it was to me, as well. But then my nephew began exhibiting signs of Asperger’s, and with his challenges I was compelled to begin reading all I could to understand how he thinks and how I can develop the best relationship with him. For the most part, books about Asperger’s are clinical in nature, which is helpful to a point but doesn’t really tell me how it feels. I ran across a couple of titles written by children and teenagers who have been living with the Syndrome, but have had little luck finding them in the library or discount book stores. And then this book came to my attention.
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s is the story of one man’s life and how he came to find a “name” for all that he had struggled to understand in himself as he grew from childhood to middle age. The author, Robison, is actually the brother of Augusten Burroughs, but this biography speaks little of the famous younger brother — Robison was virtually grown by the time Burroughs’s life story was playing out — and focuses fully on Robison’s fascinating life experiences. After leaving home at the age of 16, he ambled his way into a life on the road with Pink Floyd’s sound company and later with the rock band KISS. He found himself working as a designer for a major toy manufacturer, and then eventually dropped completely out of the corporate world to restore cars in his garage. Success found him there, as well. Despite Robison’s achievements, he struggled with the aspects of his personality that didn’t seem to fit in “normal” society. Conversations didn’t follow a logical path. Thoughts in his own head didn’t fit with what he was seeing and hearing around him. Relationships didn’t come easy. And then a therapist friend shared his knowledge of Asperger’s, and suddenly Robison began to understand.
Look Me in the Eye was insightful in many areas, most especially regarding conversations, and Robison’s life was interesting enough to keep me engaged to the end of the book. I do understand a little better the ways my nephew may be seeing the world and people around him, and for that I’m thankful to have read this book. Robison’s childhood experiences were more humorous (or sad) than they were helpful to me, and I believe that comes from his not knowing of Asperger’s while in the midst of childhood situations. The hindsight is helpful to a degree, but certainly not to the extent I was hoping to find here. All in all, the book is more an interesting biography than a great light shone on the challenging disorder, though it is highly valuable for simply introducing the oblivious public to this misunderstood disorder of the Autism Spectrum. And that’s where the real value lies.
Passages of Note
(A Permanent Playmate, p. 21)
In Pittsburgh, I finally starting learning how to make friends. I knew now that kids and dogs were different. I didn’t try to pet kids anymore, or poke them with sticks. And at nine years of age, I had a life-changing revelation.
I figured out how to talk to other children.
I suddenly realized that when a kid said, “Look at my Tonka truck,” he expected an answer that made sense in the context of what he had said. Here were some things I might have said prior to this revelation in response to “Look at my Tonka truck”:
a) “I want a helicopter.”
I was so used to living inside my own world that I answered with whatever I had been thinking. If I was remembering riding a horse at the fair, it didn’t matter if a kid came up to me and said, “Look at my truck!” or “My mom is in the hospital!” I was still going to answer, “I rode a horse at the fair.” The other kid’s words did not change the course of my thoughts. It was almost like I didn’t hear him. But on some level, I did hear, because I responded. Even though the response didn’t make any sense to the person speaking to me.
My new understanding changed that. All of a sudden, I realized that the response the kid was looking for, the correct answer, was:
e) “That’s a neat truck! Can I hold it?”
(Empathy, p. 30)
My mother sent me to therapists, all of whom focused on the wrong things. Mostly, they made me feel worse than I already did, dwelling on my so-called evil and sociopathic thoughts. They didn’t make me feel better. They just made me feel worse. None of them figured out why I grinned when I heard Eleanor’s kid had been run over by a train. But now I know. And I figured it out myself.
I didn’t really know Eleanor. And I had never met her kid. So there was no reason for me to feel joy or sorrow on account of anything that might happen to them. Here is what went through my mind that summer day:
Someone got killed.
And at the end, I smiled with relief. Whatever killed that kid was not going to get me. I didn’t even know him. It was all going to be okay, at least for me. Today my feelings would be exactly the same in that situation. The only difference is, now I have better control of my facial expressions.
(Empathy, pp. 32-33)
I have what you might call “logical empathy” for people I don’t know. That is, I can understand that it’s a shame that those people died in a plane crash. And I understand they have families, and they are sad. But I don’t have any physical reaction to the news. And there’s no reason I should. I don’t know them and the news has no effect on my life. Yes, it’s sad, but the same day thousands of other people died from murder, accident, disease, natural disaster, and all manner of other causes. I feel I must put things like this in perspective and save my worry for things that truly matter to me.
As a logical thinker, I cannot help thinking, based on the evidence, that many people who exhibit dramatic reactions to bad news involving strangers are hypocrites. That troubles me. People like that hear bad news from across the world, and they burst into wails and tears as though their own children have just been run over by a bus. To me, they don’t seem very different from actors and actresses—they are able to burst into tears on command, but does it really mean anything?
Often those same people will turn to me and say things like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re not saying anything. Don’t you care that all those people got killed? They had families, you know!”
As I got older, I found myself in trouble more and more for saying things that were true, but that people didn’t want to hear. I did not understand tact. I developed some ability to avoid saying what I was thinking. But I still thought it. It’s just that I didn’t let on quite so often.
(A Diagnosis at Forty, p. 240)
There are plenty of people in the world whose lives are governed by rote and routine. Such people will never be happy dealing with me, because I don’t conform. Luckily, the world is also full of people who care about results, and those people are usually very happy with me, because my Asperger’s compels me to be the ultimate expert in whatever field of interest I choose. And with substantial knowledge, I can obtain good results.
So I’m not defective. In fact, in recent years I have started to see that we Aspergians are better than normal! And now it seems as though scientists agree: Recent articles suggest that a touch of Asperger’s is an essential part of much creative genius.
(Montagoonians, p. 244)
The closer people are to me the less likely I am to call them by the names they were given. Bobby or Paul at work will always be Bobby or Paul when I refer to them. But my mother is never Margaret or Mom, only “my mother.” (I ceased calling my parents Slave and Stupid when I moved out, at age sixteen.)
Sometimes I recognize existing naming conventions and use them, to people’s surprise. We take for granted that people who live in America are Americans. People who live in Canada are Canadians. So what are people who live in the town of Montague? I was introducing a lawyer friend and his wife to some other people and I said, “This is George and his wife Barbara. They’re Montagoonian attorneys.” To me, that was perfectly sensible, but George looked like he’d just been mortally insulted.
I had observed that people—when meeting someone for the first time—will invariably ask two questions within a few minutes of engaging in conversation: “Where do you live?” and “What do you do?” My statement addressed both questions with a fine economy of words, and no waiting or delay. Why were they offended?
It was a puzzle to me. What else could someone from Montague be but a Montagoonian?
(Married Life, pp. 254-257)
Myself, I’ve had to get married twice for it to stick. I’ve pondered the reasons the second marriage has been more successful than the first, and for the sake of other Aspergians with relationship troubles, I will share the things she does that have kept us together:
First, she watches me very carefully. She has learned to tell if I am sad, or anxious, or worried. Some people say I never smile and I don’t have many facial expressions, but somehow she can get me to smile, and she can read what little expressions I may have. And she usually knows what to say or do to make me feel better. Or make me feel worse, which happens occasionally, when she’s turned.
She always shows interest in me, and she seems to believe in me without reservation. When I tell her I’m going to do something, she always thinks I will succeed. I am sure that her confidence in me increases the odds for my success. When I succeed at something, I come home and tell her.
“I always knew you could do it,” she will say. “That’s why I married you.”
I really don’t know how she could possibly “always know” I could do something I never did before unless it was so trivial anyone could do it, but that’s what she says.
Second, she watches what people say and do around me, and explains things I miss. Even today, I miss conversational nuances that are a typical component of conversation between “normal” people. Humor and sarcasm often go right over my head. There are times when a person says something they expect me to laugh at and I just stand there. There are times when people say things that are meant to be nasty, and I completely miss their meaning. She points those things out, gently, and I try to learn from what I missed. I miss less and less with every passing year.
Third, she is patient when I ask the same questions over and over. I have no idea why I ask the same thing over and over, but I do. If I am made to stop, I often become very anxious.
And the final thing is, we sleep in piles.
When I was little, I used to like hiding in small spaces. I don’t do that so much anymore, but I can still become unsettled lying down by myself on a bed. If I lie down by myself, I will pile pillows on top of me, but the best situation by far is to have my mate lie down, too, and pile herself up against me. I am always calmer and more relaxed in a pile. Nowadays, for the first time, I fall asleep quickly and I seldom have bad dreams.