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Learning from Asperger's

Learning from "From the Inside":
Being on the Spectrum

Paul Grobstein
December 2008

Excerpts from and comments on Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison (Crown Publishers, 2007)


"Asperger's is not a disease. Its a way of being. There is no cure, nor is there a need for one. There is, however, a need for knowledge and adaptation on the part of Aspergian kids and their families and friends ...."

"Asperger's syndrome isn't all bad. It can bestow rare gifts ... "

Among the gifts that people with Asperger's syndrome (along with others on the autistic spectrum) have to offer is a lens through which all of us might see and reflect on our own behavior in a wider context. Giving us all, perhaps, an enhanced ability to adapt, to conceive ways our behavior might usefully be otherwise ...

"By [my teenage years], I knew I wasn't being shifty or evasive when I failed to meet someone's gaze, and I had started to wonder why so many adults equated that behavior with shiftiness and evasiveness. Also, by then I had met shifty and scummy people who did look me in the eye, making me think the people who complained about me were hypocrites."

Many of us do tend to mistrust people who don't look one in the eye, who don't smile, who don't have a firm handshake, who .... And yet we all know people who do each of those things, whom we therefore trust, and who subsequently prove quite untrustworthy. Maybe we should better understand the arbitrariness of many of the social conventions we use to evaluate people, and learn to withhold judgement until we have had enough experience with individuals to know how trustworthy they actually are?

"As I got older, I found myself in trouble more and more for saying things that were true, but that people didn't want to hear. I did not understand tact. I developed some ability to avoid saying what I was thinking. But I still thought it. Its just that I didn't let on quite so often."

The Emperor's New Clothes springs to mind, of course. But maybe there's even more here to recognize than that? My guess is that most of us learn "tact" and are proud of it. In fact, we're probably good enough at learning tact so we don't actually have to "avoid saying what" we're thinking; lots of it we are even aware of thinking any more. But are those really such good things to do? To keep things to ourselves? Perhaps even from ourselves? Maybe instead of learning how not to say things that might bother other people we'd be better off learning how to listen to what other people have to say without being upset by it?

"Many descriptions of autism and Asperger's describe people like me as "not wanting contact with others" or "preferring to play alone." I can't speak for other kids, but I'd like to be very clear about my own feelings: I did not ever want to be alone. ... I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others"

My guess is that everyone would like not to be alone. Maybe we could get better at recognizing this in everyone, and preventing people from feeling like failures "at playing with others"?

"I figured out a way to capitalize on my differences from the rest of humanity ... I became a trickster ... Perhaps I could create my own reality."

Maybe that makes life more interesting. For everyone?

"At times like that it was fun being a misfit ... the creative people in the music scene all seemed to be misfits, so I blended right in"

Maybe we could all enjoy more being creative, ie being different from other people?

"I'm a very logical guy. Psychologists say that's a very Aspergian trait. This can lead to trouble in common social situations, because ordinary conversation doesn't always proceed logically."

My guess here is that "logical" means down to earth, literal minded. Its interesting that that leads to trouble in "common social situations." And raises the question of what is valued in social situations and why.

"I don't know if its an Aspergian trait or not, or if its just me, but I was never affected by celebrity. No matter how famous a musician was, he was just a guy with a broken guitar or an idea for a sound effect to me. But I could never explain that simple reality to other people .... 'Your're just modest,' people said when they felt nice. 'What an arrogant jerk you are,' they said when they felt nasty."

If its an Aspergian trait, maybe its one we could all adopt? My guess is that being interested in people for what they are to one instead of because of their social status would by itself vastly improve the average sense of well being in the population at large. To say nothing of saving a lot of money spent on magazines, flashbulbs, blogs and the like.

"I suddenly understood that Laurie's statement has been meant to entertain or impress me, and that my response should have been an expression of admiration or excitement ... Thinking about conversations like the one I had with Laurie makes me mad. People approach me uninvited, and make unsolicited statements. When they don't get the response they expect, they become indignant. If I offer no response at all, they become indignant at that ... Now I realize that normal people are acting in a superficial and often false manner ... there is no external sign that I am conversationally handicapped. So folks hear some conversational misstep and say, 'What an arrogrant jerk!'"

Maybe a little more conversational handicappedness would be good for all of us? Maybe we could/would all have more time/inclination to create things that actually entertain or impress others if we stopped spending so much time trying to do it in "superficial and often false ways"?

"We were there to create new things and solve problems, not impress anyone with our suave social skills."

My guess is that a little more along these lines would significantly reduce the incidence of anxiety disorders, to say nothing of making less unlikely sudden economic catastrophes (and booms as well).

"the higher I advanced in the corporate world, the more I had to rely on my people skills and the less my technical skills and creativity mattered. For someone like me, that was a formula for disaster."

Its probably a disaster for lots of people. Why should "advanced" be equated with less significance for "technical skills and creativity"?

"I had found a niche where my Aspergian traits actually benefited me. My compulsion to know everything ... made me a great service person. My precise speech gave me the ability to explain complex problems in simple terms. My directness meant that I told people what the needed to hear... And my inability to read body language or appearance meant - in any industry rife with discrimination - that I treated everyone the same."

What do you suppose its telling us that its hard to find niches in our culture where those traits are valued?

"When I wrote Look Me in the Eye, I wanted to show readers what it was like to grow up feeling like a freak or a misfit. I thought my book would show how people with Asperger's are different from everyone else. To my great surprise, my book actually shows the opposite: Deep down, people are pretty much the same. ... all the so-called popular people ... came to my events and they spoke up. They felt like misfits too! ... In the end, telling others how hard it was for me to fit in has helped me fit in better by revealing the universality of the struggle.

Maybe we could rethink our ways of interacting, our culture, in ways that made everyone feel .... less disabled? more valued for the distinctive features every individual has to offer?


Paul Grobstein's picture

more on Asperger's, from the inside

Paul Grobstein's picture

learning from people on the spectrum

Nice piece on NPR the other day, more about how people on the spectrum can  help us all better understand ourselves ...

Autism gives woman an "alien view' of social brains


joycetheriot's picture

Appreciate this Connection

As a HS teacher I value this book and the author's as well as Paul's comment. I feel so helpless in seeing my students having difficulty integrating into the HS environment but am pleased knowing that they may soon find their niche. I will ask my Librarian to get this important book for our school's library and make the counselors aware of this site.

Thank you for your good stories.

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on the spectrum

Paul Grobstein's picture

Aspergers's and neurodiversity

For a related book/conversation see A neurodiverse world

Anonymous's picture

tact & self-deceit

if tact = avoiding saying what we're thinking -> hiding true thoughts/feelings, not only from others but also self -> neurosis?
Asperger's and psychoanalytic theory/practice, seems like a potentially interesting intersection.
For example: Reading your (Paul's) comment on tact made me wonder whether being less skilled at tact may have a protective effect, in terms of (not) developing certain forms of mental health problems. But that would also presume that people with Asperger's are comparatively more in tune with their true thoughts and feelings than those without... I don't know if that's generally the case or not. If so, one could make some potentially interesting observations re: the validity of analytic theory, amongst other things...
holiday duties call - thanks for sharing!

John Elder Robison's picture

That's a very thoughtful

That's a very thoughtful discussion of some of the ideas from my book. As a neurobiologist, you may also be interested in the TMS work I've participated in over the summer. There are some stories on that collected on my blog. Look back in Nov/Dec archive for a summary post.

You remark that my own "different" thought processes provide a new lens with which others can see the world. I've heard that before, but I can now say I've experienced it myself in a very profound way.

The TMS has altered some functions in my own brain, and I've been able to experience slightly altered ways of being and in doing so, gain far deeper insight into certain processes. I'll be talking about that at more length in my next book.

If I may, I'd like to comment on one of your thoughts:

You said: "What do you suppose its telling us that its hard to find niches in our culture where those traits are valued?"

I actually don't think it's hard to find places where my logical behavior is valued today. Indeed, I now have a comparative abundance of people who seem to value logical thought. So what changed?

The answer is that I voiced some of those thoughts in book form, allowing people to evaluate them separately from me, and how eccentric or different I may appear in person. Today, when people meet me in person, my writing or speaking has often come before, and the people therefore start out with a predisposition in my favor.

In our society, if you do things that bring you some measure of acclaim, your eccentricities tend to be rendered insignificant, harmless, or funny by your other actions. I did not know that when I was young, but I see it clearly now. Some psychologists call that the competence-deviance hypothesis.

You also ponder my comment that technical skills did not matter anymore as I rose up the corporate food chain. I should point out that is much less true today. Places like Google (as one example) embrace people like me, and I might have had a very different life if places like that had been around 30 years ago.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Diversity and deviance, to John Elder Robison, and others ....

Delighted to have you drop by, and leave your thoughts. I'm more than happy to agree that the "culture" (or at least some part if it) is more accepting of certain kinds of differences/deviances than it used to be.  And pleased that it is for you (and others) it is "a different place" than it was "30 years ago."  

We do indeed make progress of particular fronts.  What concerns me is that we don't seem to generalize those understandings.  We still tend to presume automatically that deviance is to be equated with disability.  I'd like to see us reach a point where we start instead with the presumption that difference/deviance is valuable, and come instead to the conclusion that a particular deviance is a problem only if/when we have acquired observations indicating that that is so. 

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