John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

When I first saw John Robison’s memoir, “Look me in the eye” I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the subtitle “My Life with Asperger’s” provided a clue about the book’s topic. On the other hand, I was afraid that the label would narrow the scope of the story to just one dimension. I eventually decided to read the book, and after finishing it I realize how far off the mark my first impressions were. John Robison uses the label Asperger’s not to shrink his worldview but to expand it. And even better, his label has helped me understand some things about myself.

What is Asperger’s?
People with Asperger’s Syndrome are awkward in their relationships to people, and often are physically clumsy as well. The description of someone with this “disorder” sounds remarkably similar to me and my fellow nerds in the honors class at Central High School, the all-academic public school I attended in Philadelphia. We preferred books over people, and had little interest in sports. We had plenty to do within our own mind. Everything else came second, if at all. While many people diagnosed with Asperger’s suffer symptoms far more severe than these, I was able to relate personally to the comparatively mild symptoms described in Robison’s memoir.

Permission to be “dull and introspective”
I went to camp in the mountains of Maryland, one month each summer between the ages of 9 and 11. I remember lying on the scratchy wool blanket on my hard bunk. I feel the bang and bend as I pounded a shiny copper sheet into a wooden mold, forming a nubbly metal ashtray. I taste my first corn fritters swimming in maple syrup in a noisy mess hall. But I don’t remember one single other person, child or adult, from those three months. Except for a few instances, I don’t even clearly remember growing up with my brother and sister. I had figured out how to survive in my own world, preferring reading over sports or other games and on weekends working in my dad’s drugstore. One of the most emotional moments I remember from my high school years happened when I walked into a bookstore and I felt overwhelmed by grief that there were too many books for me to ever read. I actually started to cry.

My lack of awareness of other children makes my descriptions of those years sound like I was alone. How will I ever be able to explain my life, when so much of it was spent inside my own mind? Until I read John Robison’s book, I assumed I had to hide my excessive introspection, ignore my high tech jobs and love for math, and the fact that it took until I was 35 to relate to a woman well enough to form a loving relationship. I thought to be worth reading, I had to restrict my memoir to “normal” behaviors, and had to transform my experience into picturesque portrayals like other authors I admire.

Instead of hating my condition or trying to hide it, I can now look at it more appropriately. People in my “condition” behave this way normally! The facts are the same but now, armed with Robison’s insights, I am able to look more closely at a wider variety of memories, and explore how to find the dramatic tension in the person I really was, rather than trying to force myself to sound like someone I wanted to be.

Robison even makes the case that looking inward is a valuable skill. After all, engineers, scientists, and writers must go inside their mind to do their work. And everyone benefits from carefully weighing options in order to make the most effective decisions. After reading “Look Me in the Eye” I realize there is room in the world for a variety of memoirs, and that someone with a mind like mine can write an acceptable, even fascinating story about their lives.

He turned coping with his own flaws into an opportunity to serve others
Robison started in life feeling limited and confused. Through this journey, he has discovered many things about himself. First he applied his mind logically to create excellent pranks. Then these same mental attributes helped create special effects for the rock and roll band, KISS. Then he used his mental abilities to solve high-tech problems in game manufacturing company. Next, he added people to the mix by starting an auto repair shop. Learning to deal with customers was his new hurdle. Look at how the protagonist of Robison’s memoir evolved through the story. By the end of this journey he understood so much more about life than when he started.

When I look for the net result of my life, the “reason I am here,” a question that has haunted me since I was 20, I believe that John Robison’s book offers me an intriguing template. I too lived decade after decade, trying to understand who I was and how to live more wisely. Perhaps somewhere in that long journey, I can find experience that could help others. At least that is my dream.

Reaching my sixtieth birthday could look suspiciously like I’m approaching The End. Is this truly time to close the book? I don’t feel finished. Perhaps the opportunity to pass along my accumulated experience provides the topic for the next chapter. When I first saw John Robison’s book, I would never have expected it to provide a model for my future, but there it is. John Robison’s life, or more accurately, his memoir about his life, has landed squarely in the center of my dream. Reach the “end” of a lifelong journey, look back across the landscape and find the wisdom contained in it. Then begin the new journey of sharing that knowledge with others.

Writing Prompt: Pick out some theme or period in your life that you think might make a good story. Now look for the main dramatic payoff to the reader. What goal did you want to achieve or what obstacle did you want to overcome. Now explain how you reached that goal by the end of the story.


To read more about Asperger’s click on this link to a Wiki Article.

To read my other article about John Robison’s “Look Me in the Eye” click here.

To visit John Robison’s blog, click here.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

10 thoughts on “John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself

  1. For further discussion regarding Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), check out David Anderegg’s Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. I’m about a quarter of the way through and just checked the index where I learned that Asperger’s is mentioned over the course of eleven pages, spread throughout the book. It’s come up once in my reading thus far, so seeing AS mentioned in your post raised the flag.

    Nice post, Jerry. (A compliment from someone who spent many a day being dull and introspective. I now prefer to remember myself as pensive. Ha!


  2. Jerry — enjoyed this post! And I agree with you that there are 2 stories here…where you’ve been and where you’re going.
    (btw, was that camp you went to the brother camp of Camp Louise?)

  3. Tysdaddy, Thanks for the tip about the book. This raises a teaching point. Reading about things related to yourself is a good way to research your memoir. Now I have to study nerds of all things. Time to dig out my pocket protector. 🙂

    Sunny, um, that’s kind of strange that you picked up on the camp. Are there really that few camps in Maryland, or is the world wide web connecting more than just electron. 🙂 Yes, it was Mount Airy. In an impulse of fact-checking curiosity I contacted them to be sure of the location and they are still there.

  4. I first heard about Asperger’s a couple of years ago when I read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, which is told from the point of view of a young boy who suffers with this syndrome. I’ve heard and read that there are varying degress of Asperger’s.
    Llike most writers, I often find myself conflicted between needing the company of people and wanting to spend long periods in total isolation so I can write and think. I suppose this applies to a lot of activities that require deep concetration and / or creativity.

  5. Yet another book I’ve got to read! I am intrigued, I’ve never heard of Asperger’s. Books are always reliable and there for you, yes, and in so many ways better than real life.

  6. Hi Cindy,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not surprised you’ve not heard of Asperger’s. It has only become widely known in the last decade or two and not worked its way into common knowledge. Reading the book offers the multiple benefits of learning about the condition, learning what it’s like from inside someone’s experience, and getting an example of a somewhat different type of memoir.


  7. Thank you for an interesting article – very inspiring. I have never heard of Asperger’s before, though the symptoms you descirbe sound rather familiar. I will have to check out this book.

  8. Thanks for the comment, Linda. Yes, I think John Robison is doing important work letting the world know about this “disorder” – I think it points to the fact that many of us “nerds” are on the so-called “Spectrum” – we are more interested in what goes on inside our mind than out in the world and it can many years of retraining one’s self to get the inner and outer world into balance. There’s a pretty good wiki article about it. I’m going to add the link to the wiki article now.


  9. Pingback: Annotated List of Memoirs Used for Essays | Memory Writers Network

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