Eye Contact

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, by John Elder Robison, was published in 2008. It is a memoir.

Look Me in The EyeWhen he was a young boy, John Elder couldn’t look people in the eye when they were talking to him. He couldn’t explain why. He couldn’t figure out why looking at an eyeball was necessary to a conversation.

He lack of eye contact was perceived as defiance. His apparent lack of empathy and emotion labeled him as a sociopath and potential murderer.

In 1981, an Austrian pediatrician named Hans Asperger wrote a paper on children with above average vocabulary, who displayed behaviors similar to autism. In 1994, Asperger’s syndrome was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

When he was forty years old, John Elder Robison was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. He finally understood that it was a overreaction to visual stimuli that made it difficult to make eye contact when spoken to. He needed to look at something neutral, something not distracting, in order to concentrate on the words. But, for the first forty years of his life, John Elder didn’t know why the world was so confusing to him.

He had trouble making friends as a child, because of his lack of empathy. He didn’t understand why boys didn’t like being treated like The Three Stooges treat each other, or why girls didn’t like being petted on the head like a poodle. Eventually, he learned that children are not puppies, although he never really understood why they weren’t.

Even though he didn’t show them, young John Elder had feelings, and not had having friends made him sad. He was a smart child, though, and he learned, on his own, how to act appropriately, how to respond correctly, how to look normal, and how to make friends.

He made friends. He found a girlfriend.

People with Asperger’s face multiple social difficulties. They tend to think logically, and social conversations are rarely logical. They have trouble reading facial expressions. They tend to react to inner thoughts, rather than what’s being said to them. Many with Asperger’s give up trying to talk at all. It’s not a visible disability, so many people with Asperger’s are seen as rude.

When he was twelve, his father and his teachers predicted that, with his deviant behavior, John Elder was headed for “a career pumping gas, or jail, or the Army”.

John Elder had a talent for machines. He once built a crane with his Erector set, so he could lift blocks into his baby brother’s crib. His parents encouraged this talent by buying him a RadioShack computer kit, giving him discarded televisions to tinker with, and even building him a work area in the basement.

In junior high school, he understood electronics. He could visualize an electrical equation in his mind, but he couldn’t read an equation in a textbook. When he looked at an electronic wave, he heard music. He understood music, he could read music, but he couldn’t play the bass his grandparents bought him. So he took his Fender Showman amp apart and figured out how to improve it. He took his new amp to local shows, impressed musicians, and became a minor celebrity.

He had a talent for elaborate pranks, often involving fire or explosions.

John Elder was a bad student. At fifteen, he was scoring straight Fs. His school offered him a deal: If he could score at least 75 percent on his GED, and pay $20 for a diploma, they would consider him an early graduate. He scored 96 percent, refused the diploma, and dropped out of high school.

He lived in the woods for a while.

With his family falling apart, and school behind him, John Elder became a paid member of the sound crew of a band named Fat. He lived with the band, toured with the band, and got arrested in the Caribbean with the band.

He left Fat, and got a job with a band equipment rental company owned by Pink Floyd. He worked with bands as diverse as Meat Loaf, Talking Heads, and Phoebe Snow.

With the help of friends, John Elder Robison designed and built the smoking guitar for KISS. He went on tour with the most famous band in the world, designing their pyrotechnics, but, to him, it was just another engineering job.

The Rock and Roll life didn’t pay well, so he entered the corporate world, landing a job in the Advanced R&D Group of Milton Bradley’s new electronics division. He and his team saved Microvision. His success backfired. The more he was promoted, the more he had to rely on people skills.

John Elder couldn’t be a team player, so he started his own business, restoring and repairing fine European cars.  As of the writing of Look Me in the Eye, JE Robison Service employs twelve technicians.

One of John Elder’s customers was a therapist named TR Rosenberg. The two became friends. Ten years later, TR Rosenberg risked their friendship by saying that he’s noticed some odd behavior in John Elder, and that those behaviors fit Asperger’s syndrome perfectly.

I absolutely loved this book. Look Me in the Eye is about Asperger’s syndrome. It’s also about what it’s like to have Asperger’s – to be a child, to be a worker, to be an author, to be a husband, and to be a father with Asperger’s.  It’s about a remarkable life. It is a story told without pity, and with a surprising amount of humor. (You pay $4,000 for a hospital visit and all they give you is a baby?)

  • A book by or about a person who has a disability