Thursday, March 26, 2015

Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison (Book Review #26 of 2015)

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's
The foreword to this book is written by Augusten Burroughs, Robison's younger brother (referred to as "Varmint" by Robison). I have not read nor seen Running With Scissors and I don't plan on it after reading John Elder Robison's memoir. 

I read memoirs of those with autism as a parent of a child on the autism spectrum with many similarities as Robison. The "Aspergian" (Robison's term) memoir I could best compare this work to was David Finch's The Journal of Best Practices (my review). Robison gives insights (and explanations) into the mind of someone on the autism spectrum but it comes after enduring the details of various stories, sometimes outlandish, sometimes mundane. These get a little old, particularly the stories of his pranks-- he became very good at making up lies that sounded real. One wonders how much of this book is actually made up as a result. 

The tragic portion I'll get out of the way up front: Robison had a mother who was mentally ill and a father who was an abusive alcoholic. While a childhood psychologist helped some, the psychologist was himself insane and abused the family. Robison eventually gets some reconciliation with his father and a greater appreciation for his mother. 

Robison was self-conscious of his social deficiencies from an early age. He felt he was a "failure" and was always "alone on the playground." But he had the remarkable ability to slowly learn social thinking and correct social responses as he gets older. This was encouraging to me as I watch my son go through therapy involving deliberate social thinking (and I live and work among likely undiagnosed people on the spectrum and observe their levels of self-consciousness as well). He is finally diagnosed with Asperger's when his own son is six, and he both sees some of the same traits in his sons and cares very much for his social development. Elder Robison still gets admonished by his son ("Dad, stop being autistic!") when he has problems sitting still and such. 

One important point Robison makes, which every testimony from an autistic author I've read includes, is that he did not want to be alone, even though he was most comfortable playing alone. He desperately longed to be able to make social connections, he just didn't know how. Repeatedly in the book he laments his lack of ability to start conversations, to ask the right questions, to show empathy, to show interest in girls, etc. It's important for us parents to remember-- our kids sometimes need us to help them make social connections with friends. 

"I have logical empathy," he writes. Viewed logically, the things we neurotypicals get upset about don't make sense. Why do we get upset when we see a plane crash on the news, knowing that we weren't on it and the odds of it happening to us are quite small? Robison had problems with his expressions. On hearing that someone died, he might grin-- logically he thought "I am glad it wasn't me or someone I know. I am glad I do not have to endure the hardship this person is going through," and he was therefore thankful and would smile-- not an empathetic response. 

Robison had similar fixations as Finch and others-- trains, cars, electronics. He has owned and fixed up 17 Porches (selling them after he completely fixes them). After dropping out of high school, he ends up spending time on UMass' campus, working in their labs and reading engineering textbooks. He develops his own electronics workshop, which eventually leads to a gig touring with KISS and designing their famous pyrotechnic guitars and sound system. This should make him quite popular, but he remains shy around the band's groupies and lives in his own world in the midst of all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the band. This is after a brief stay in Montserrat jail with a band Robison played with.

Somehow, he and "Little Bear," fall in love at an early age and remain an item-- eventually getting married and having a child. He does not share much about how this relationship worked, other than she traveled with him some while he toured. There are not a lot of deep emotional insights other than they were fairly disconnected from each other. Those insights would have helped the book, but Robison does share more about the things his second wife does that helps him. She observes him carefully to determine his moods. She is patient with his repeatedly asking the same questions. She uses touch and hugs to calm him when he's anxious. She carefully observes his interactions with others and later explains nuances and important things he might not have picked up on. "Martha" brings him "joy and tranquillity" like he's never known. 

By the time he's 23, he's matured and gotten a good-paying job with Milton Bradley developing their electronics. He works on the Microvision-- a precursor to Nintendo's Game Boy-- and works with a partner to save the company millions by fixing a critical defect. While Microvision and Milton Bradley implode, Robison tries to move on to other corporate jobs. He eventually manages a team of engineers at Simplex Time Recorder and others before pursuing his love of cars by becoming his own dealer. This leads to another stint in poverty. His wife goes back to college as the relationship sours, and they have a son, "Cubby," who John cares for deeply. 

The most interesting component of the book, for me, was Robison's comments about brain plasticity and how his autistic traits have lessened. He hypothesizes that some autistic children suffer the pain of social awkwardness and turn inward, becoming savants or obsessed with their own worlds as he was with mathematics and electronics. Now, however, he has worked hard at developing social awareness and when he looks at his old circuits and designs he can no longer recognize them or recreate them. He has re-wired his brian, in a sense. He ends up at a high school reunion and it's a different experience for him as he's now able to converse and make friends. 

Despite the childhood setbacks and nagging voices in his head calling him a "failure," he has pressed on in the manner of his favorite childhood storybood-- The Little Engine that Could. He has since written other books for people with autism, which I'd be interested to read. 

In all, I give this book 3 stars. I had to wade through a lot of seemingly unnecessary stories for the pearls of insight I gleaned. There is a lot of profanity in the book and some painful situations. It is remarkable that Robison overcame discouragement and childhood disadvantages. 

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