Asperger’s Syndrome discussed Tuesday with author |

Asperger’s Syndrome discussed Tuesday with author

Childhood can be rough. For author John Elder Robison, rough doesn’t begin to describe it. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Robison was physically abused by his alcoholic father as a child, and that his mother lost her mind right before his eyes; his teachers picked on him because he didn’t behave like a normal child and he had trouble making friends or meeting girls because he didn’t understand the intricacies of social interaction.

For a long time Robison wondered why he couldn’t form emotional attachments to the people in his life, why he couldn’t look people in the eye during a conversation and why he got along better with machines than human beings. It wasn’t until the age of 40 that Robison received a proper diagnosis.

He had Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism characterized by difficulties in social interactions and focused, specific patterns of behavior, interests and activities ” like rocking back and forth while in a public setting or calling people by something other than their given name.

Armed with that knowledge, Robison wrote his memoir called “Look Me In The Eye” detailing his life with Asperger’s. He will be at the Bookworm of Edwards on Tuesday for a booksigning and conversation about this mostly unknown disorder.

“To suddenly learn that I’m not defective or a serial killer waiting to catch my first victim ” that’s a great relief,” Robison said during a recent phone interview.

As a child adults often told him he had all the traits of a murderer or an animal torturer. This confused Robison ” he said he never felt any of those tendencies, his emotional disconnection was just a result of the Asperger’s.

“I would think ‘well, I never really did those things but maybe they know better than me, maybe I’m going to go bad.’ Especially when you hear that kind of stuff as a teenager, it’s really bad for you,” Robison said.

Misunderstanding children with Asperger’s syndrome is common according to Patty Gould, director of the Colorado Springs chapter of Learning RX, a study center that helps struggling students overcome learning problems. She’s worked with her share of Aspergian students in the past and said that while programs to help autistic spectrum disorders have come a long way, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“A place that doesn’t have as good of services, they might just think ‘oh, he’s the odd man, he’s the odd kid,’ and they don’t even know how to deal with it,” Gould said.

Much of “Look Me In The Eyes” shows Robison in situations where the people in his life, and even himself, didn’t understand the reasons for his odd behavior.

Having previously only written articles for car magazines, Robison said he learned a lot about himself once he started to tackle his past.

“Some of it was painful to remember and some of it made me sad. I think on balance, the result of writing the book is I got a lot more insight into why I act or think the way I do,” Robison said. “I had to think really carefully why I said and did things at those long-ago times because I wanted to do the best possible job of helping people understand that kind of behavior.”

But the stories in “Look Me In The Eye” aren’t all unhappy, many of them are humorous, weird, or just downright cool. Robison is the brother of “Running With Scissors” author Augusten Burroughs; he toured with KISS and built special effects for Ace Frehley’s guitars; he helped design some of the first talking and hand-held electronic games for Milton Bradley; and he got thrown in jail in the Caribbean Islands on drug charges. He’s been married twice, has a son and now owns his own business refurbishing foreign luxury cars. And all that happened before he even knew he had Asperger’s.

Since being diagnosed with the disorder he’s become a best-selling author and works with Elms College in his home state of Massachusetts to better their special education programs.

“I think it’s very useful for those teachers to see someone like me as a successful, functional adult because it gives them a totally different perspective on those kids that they’re trying to teach,” Robison said. “They just see them as struggling children but people like me are proof that they can turn into very creative, successful adults.”

An essential message

“Look Me In The Eyes” is even being used as a teaching tool for many students with Asperger’s and their families and friends, according to Robison.

For that reason he removed all the swearing and crude language found in the hardcover edition of the book for the paperback version to make it more palatable to younger readers.

“In the hardcover it might have said ‘what the f— are you doing here’ and I just rewrote it to say ‘what are you guys doing’ because I realized that the swears are not essential to the message, which is about how people think … it makes my book accessible to all of those parents who just wouldn’t be comfortable giving the hardcover with profanity to young kids,” Robison said.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or

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