Look Me in the Eye

My Life with Asperger\’s
by John Elder Robison

I found another book on my shelf written by someone on the autism spectrum. It\’s the brother of Augusten Burroughs, who wrote Running with Scissors (which I tried to read once but failed to find it interesting). Look Me in the Eye tells about growing up in a dysfunctional family- his mother had mental illness and his father was an alcoholic. As a young kid, John Elder wanted to play with other children but didn\’t know how- his odd way of talking earned him labels of being weird and difficult, and for his inability to make eye contact he was called \”shifty\” and \”up to no good\”. He more or less got pigeonholed as a bad kid. This was in the sixties, Asperger\’s wasn\’t a known diagnosis back then.

Actually, I found a lot of the book kind of hard to get through at first, because I was expecting to read about what it\’s like to live with Asperger\’s, and instead I was reading about all these crazy incidents as John Elder dropped out of school, left home and started travelling with bands- he had a genius for designing things with electronics and made special effects with sound, lights and smoke bombs for several different bands including Pink Floyd and Kiss. Hard to put down, but also really far from my usual reading interests! The author was really good at what he did, and enjoyed the creativity, but had difficulty handling the close personal interactions living in close quarters with the road crew on tour. Eventually he left that scene and started working for Milton Bradley, making the first electronic toys that used motion and sound. That was also a creative environment and it\’s fascinating to read how he and the other electronic engineers came up with solutions to problems, within tight constraints. But promotions placed him in positions where he was managing a team, not doing the creative work himself, which he didn\’t like. So he left that line of work and started his own business rebuilding specialty cars- had interest in vehicles, fixing and rebuilding engines from a young age. That is still operational.

It was only in his forties that a close friend showed the author a book which described Asperger\’s symptoms, and he realized for the first time why he was different from other people. He relates how reading Born on a Blue Day and books by Temple Grandin helped him recognize and understand himself. I found the last part of the memoir more interesting, where the author describes his thought process, looks back on his childhood with new comprehension, talks with his estranged parents about certain things, relates how he parented his own son (who isn\’t on the autism spectrum but has some of the traits) and tells how he is continually working on social skills and \”emotional intelligence\” but that has changed his ability to do the amazingly creative electronics work that highlighted his youth. In fact, he looks back on designs he made when he did sound effects for bands, and says he could think those things up nowadays, but not execute them, because he\’s a different person now and has lost that laser focus on one area of expertise. He\’s happy with it though. Fascinating. I wasn\’t sure at first, but I think this one\’s staying on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5             288 pages, 2007

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One Response

  1. I read this one about four years ago, and just looking at the cover again on your blog brought back a flood of memories. I'm a big fan of memoirs, sometimes reading close to 20 a year of them, and this, I think, is one of the most unusual memoirs I've ever read.

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