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Memoirist Tells of Life on the Autism Spectrum

State of the Arts


Published September 10, 2008 at 5:32 a.m.


John Elder Robison prefers machines to people. Machines are predictable — governed by rules and logic. People, on the other hand, are unpredictable, and at times illogical.

Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye is a personal account of living with Asperger’s — an autism spectrum disorder often characterized by social dysfunction and ineptitude, poor motor skills, and compulsive interests and behaviors. But his story also resonates with anyone who has struggled with being “different.”

The memoir follows Robison as he plows through schools and therapists as a kid, undiagnosed and unsupported — an experience that left him and his family exasperated and confused.

A 10th-grade dropout, Robison nonetheless had skills with electronics that got him work in the 1970s with bands such as Pink Floyd and KISS. After leaving the rock ’n’ roll world, he designed talking toys for Milton Bradley.

In 1986, Robison launched a European car sales and service business after giving up on trying to pass as “normal” in society. Relating to cars was easier. He first learned about Asperger’s Syndrome from a man who came to his garage for repairs.

Today, Robison is married with a son. His book often puts him on the road, where he speaks to groups and at festivals. Large crowds can cause crippling anxiety to someone with Asperger’s. Robison does his best to cope, he says, and his fans help.

“I have learned that people who come to see me are basically kindly disposed toward me, so I don’t worry so much about the crowds,” Robison tells Seven Days. “It’s important to spread my message of tolerance, understanding and hope, and I’m willing to put up with some discomfort to do so.”

Robison’s biggest fan is his younger brother, Augusten Burroughs, who focused on him in one chapter of his bestselling memoir Running With Scissors — sparking the interest of Aspergerians and their families. Robison left home at 16, when Burroughs was 8, leaving his little brother devastated. The two remain close to this day — literally, living in adjoining homes in Massachusetts.

In 2005, after their father became ill and died, Robison wrote an essay about the experience, which Burroughs posted on his website. Reader interest ran so high that Burroughs suggested his big brother write a full memoir. Robison obliged.

“Once again my brilliant brother had found a way to channel his unstoppable Asperger’s energy and talent,” writes Burroughs in his introduction to Look Me in the Eye.

Robison says the book led people to view him differently. “Now that I’ve come out of the closet, as it were, people seem willing to accept me for what I am. It’s actually liberating,” he says. In other social settings, he admits, “I can still seem rude or insensitive.”

For this week’s paperback release of his memoir, Robison has added new material, much of it educational. He even rewrote about 50 pages to remove profanity after learning the book is being used as a “teach tolerance” tool as early as fifth grade. (The hardcover still has all the cussing.)

“I’ve received many, many letters from people on the spectrum who identify with the stories in my book,” Robison says. “I’ve also gotten countless letters from parents who saw my story as a window into their own child.”