LOOK ME IN THE EYE: MY LIFE WITH ASPERGER’S is a Fascinating Book

Dear Reader,

You gotta love the cover of the paperback edition of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Aspergers. It features a photo of a geeky-eared boy, his eyes and mouth scrunched shut in a “you-can’t-make-me” way. It’s the reason I picked up the book. Author John Elder Robison has Asperger’s. He didn’t graduate from high school, didn’t go to college, but he did design “fire-breathing” guitars for KISS, solve problems as an electrical engineer, marry twice, and start a business called J E Robinson Service, which repairs and restores Rolls-Royces, Land Rovers, and Mercedes cars. He’s successful. Of course, Robinson learned a lot to enable himself to get where he is now, most importantly to work with his strengths and to practice introspection. (I think he would say he isn’t typical of someone who has Asperger’s; no one is typical.)

Robinson talks about the thing he’s always had for machines:

“Many people with Asperger’s have an affinity for machines. Sometimes I think I can relate better to a good machine than any kind of person. I’ve thought about why that is, and I’ve come up with a few ideas. One thought is that I control the machines. We don’t interact as equals. No matter how big the machine, I am in charge. Machines don’t talk back. They are predictable. They don’t trick me, and they’re never mean.

“I have a lot of trouble reading other people. I am not very good at looking at people and knowing whether they like me, or they’re mad, or they’re just waiting for me to say something. I don’t have problems like that with machines.”

He also talks about “Looking people in the eye”:

“I was well into my teenage years before I figured out that I wasn’t a killer, or worse. By then, I knew I wasn’t being shifty or evasive when I failed to meet someone’s gaze, and I had started to wonder why so many adults equated that behavior with shiftiness and evasiveness. Also, by then I had met shifty and scummy people who did look me in the eye, making me think the people who complained about me were hypocrites.

“To this day, when I speak, I find visual input to be distracting. When I was younger, if I saw something interesting I might begin to watch it and stop speaking entirely. As a grown-up, I don’t usually come to a complete stop, but I may still pause if something catches my eye. That’s why I usually look somewhere neutral—at the ground or off into the distance—when I’m talking to someone. Because speaking while watching things has always been difficult for me, learning to drive a car and talk at the same time was tough one, but I mastered it.

“And now I know it is perfectly natural for me not to look at someone when I talk. Those of us with Asperger’s are just not comfortable doing it. In fact, I don’t really understand why it’s considered normal to stare at someone’s eyeballs.”

I’m glad I read this book, because it gave me some understanding about people like Robinson, whom I consider rude, clueless, or just plain weird. I’d like to think this understanding will help me think before I judge.

Note: John Elder Robison is Augusten Burroughs’ (Running with Scissors) older brother.

For other angles on Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum disorders, read:

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant – Daniel Tammet

Thinking in Pictures – Temple Grandin

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – fiction by Mark Haddon

Autism and Me: Siblings Stories -Ouisie Shapiro and Steven Vote (See my 5-18-09 post)

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