Tell the Truth
How Asperger's Syndrome is a curse and a blessing.
Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By FRANKLIN FREEMAN
Look Me in the Eye
"Asperger's is not a disease," John Elder Robison writes in his new memoir. "It's a way of being. There is no cure, nor is there a need for one."
Asperger's syndrome is often described as a mild or high-functioning form of autism. The Austrian physician Hans Asperger first described it in the 1940s, but his work was not widely disseminated until Lorna Wing coined the phrase "Asperger's syndrome" in 1981. According to Tony Attwood, a leading expert on Asperger's, "A lack of social skills, limited ability to have a reciprocal conversation and an intense interest in a particular subject are the core features of this syndrome."
At a recent conference Attwood suggested (and he is not alone in this) that some of the world's most famous people might have had (or have) Asperger's: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, Bela Bartok, Alan Turing, Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson, Howard Hughes, and Napoleon. I would add G.K. Chesterton as a probable example, as well as the fictional character Wallace Gruner in Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet.
Robison's memoir recounts his struggles as a child and adolescent, both with his simultaneously abusive and loving family, and with the mystery of his isolation from other kids. It describes how he slowly learned to communicate with some children, grew absorbed in the study of machines and how they work, and gained the affection of his peers by becoming the class prankster. Brilliant yet failing every subject, Robison dropped out of high school. But having learned on his own how to take apart and modify amplifiers, he soon was making good money working for rock groups, starting with Fat, then Pink Floyd--"the Floyd," as those in the know called it--and KISS.
After teaching Ace Frehley of KISS about the joys of smoking guitars, Robison, who is generous in documenting the group effort involved in the guitar work, finally grew disenchanted with being rich one week and poor the next, and found a job with the Milton Bradley Co. in research and development. Thereafter he worked his way up various corporate ladders, but disliked management, chucked the corporate life, and exploiting his lifelong interest in foreign cars, started a business repairing and restoring European vehicles, including Porsches, Land Rovers, Mercedes, and Rolls-Royces.
Robison did not know he had Asperger's until a therapist friend lent him a book by Tony Attwood. While reading it, the mystery of his life was illuminated. When his father died, Robison was uncharacteristically distraught--not that he didn't have the emotions, but he seldom showed them--and his younger brother, the author of Running with Scissors, prodded him into writing an essay about their father. When his brother posted the essay on his website it became its most popular piece. Then his brother told Robison to write a memoir, and he has.
All to the benefit of both those who, like myself, have an Aspergian in their family, and those who don't but who will be moved by a great story. It is filled with hilarious, raucous, shocking, and sad episodes, and insights into the logical thinking of Aspergians. Some of these include discussions of how Aspergians say what they think because they don't understand the social cues that most of us pick up naturally. In one sense, of course, they are refreshingly honest. For instance: "As to the weight [of a person] . . . if [a friend] looks bigger, I'd say, 'You seem fatter than the last time I saw you' . . . If someone looks a lot thinner, I might say, 'You look a lot thinner . . . are you sick?'" An Aspergian has to work hard to learn not to say things like that. Attwood says that children with Asperger's work twice as hard at school: They do the school work, but they also have to work at learning the basic social skills most of us take for granted.
Robison writes, "Asperger's syndrome isn't all bad. It can bestow rare gifts. Some Aspergians have truly extraordinary natural insight into complex problems. An Aspergian child may grow up to be a brilliant engineer or scientist. Some have perfect pitch and otherworldly musical abilities. Many have such exceptional verbal skills that some refer to the condition as Little Professor Syndrome. But don't be misled--most Aspergian kids do not grow up to be college professors. Growing up can be rough."
Franklin Freeman is a writer in Maine.