John Elder Robison
Author of Look Me in the Eye and Switched On
“Deeply felt and often darkly funny, Look Me in the Eye is a delight.”—People magazine, Critics Choice, 4 Stars
“It's a fantastic life story (highlights include building guitars for KISS) told with grace, humor, and a bracing lack of sentimentality.”—Entertainment Weekly
John Elder Robison is the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. He is an active participant in the ongoing discussion of ethical and legal issues relating to autism therapy, services, and intervention. He is particularly interested in improving quality of life for those people living with autism today—both autistic people and family members. He’s been a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Department of Health and Human Services, and he serves on other boards for the US National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and private organizations. He’s co-founder of a high school program for teens with developmental challenges in Springfield, MA.
Robison’s books Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby are the most widely read accounts of life with Asperger’s in the world. His books have been translated into more than fifteen languages, and they are sold in 60+ countries. His newest book—Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening—will be published in March 2016. Robison has also authored or contributed to over 100 autism-related articles.
Switched On: Extraordinary Brain Change and Emotional Awakening
It’s long been assumed that people living with autism and Asperger’s are born with a diminished ability to read the emotions of others, even as they feel emotion deeply. But what if we’ve been wrong all this time? What if that ‘missing’ emotional insight was there all along, locked away and inaccessible in the mind?
In 2007, John Elder Robison wrote the international bestseller Look Me in the Eye, a memoir about growing up with Asperger’s. Amid the blaze of publicity that followed, he received a unique invitation. Would John like to take part in a study led by one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, who would use an experimental new brain therapy in a major effort to understand and then address the issues at the heart of autism and Asperger’s?
In this keynote, based on his new book Switched On, Robison tells the extraordinary story of what happened next. Having spent forty years as a social outcast, misreading other’s emotions or missing them completely, John is suddenly able to sense a powerful range of feelings in other people. However, this newfound insight brings new problems and serious questions. As the emotional ground shifts beneath his feet, Robison struggles with the very real possibility that choosing to diminish his disability might also mean sacrificing his unique gifts—and even some of his closest relationships.
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's
In affecting, unforgettable talks, John Elder Robison details how he overcame enormous odds to lead a fulfilling life: from an anti-social child to a successful father now running a multi-million dollar car specialty shop and his own photography business. Though his life is unique—he's designed guitars for KISS and toys for Milton Bradley—it's equally rich with clues to both spotting autism in children and harnessing the best from those already diagnosed. (Some autistic kids excel at math, in engineering, and with technology.) Robison has been applauded by thousands—the general public, teachers, mental health workers—for his storytelling skill, his on-stage compassion, and his insistence that anyone can lead successful lives according to gifts, not limitations. Asperger's is not a disease that needs curing; it's a way of experiencing life that requires only understanding and encouragement from others. Robison reminds us that people "on the spectrum" can develop throughout their lives, and that it's never too late to hope for or expect change.
Being Different: Turning Childhood Disabilities into Adult Gifts
In this talk, John Elder Robison describes how the differences of autism and ADHD can disable us as children even as they confer powerful competitive advantages upon us as adults. Though poignant examples from his own life, Robison shows how traits that crippled him as a child actually facilitated some of his greatest accomplishments as an adult. He shares a new way to look at disability, difference, and giftedness, and offers a different paradigm for educators, parents, and neurodiverse people. Anyone who is personally affected by autism, Asperger’s, or ADHD will find this talk illuminating and inspiring.
In this talk, John Elder Robison presents a new way to look at the education of young people who are “different.” Why is this important? Researchers have begun to realize that many of humanity’s greatest minds showed traits of difference—what we now call neurodiversity (for neurological diversity.) As great a genius as Michelangelo was, he’d probably struggle to graduate high school if he were growing up today. The same can be said for Einstein, Newton, and a host of other great thinkers. Drawing on experience with his TCS high school program and his work as Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at The College of William & Mary, Robison talks about how forward thinkers in high schools and colleges are blazing a trail to a new form of education which is more inclusive and more successful.
Hiring on the Spectrum: Neurodiversity at the Workplace
People with autism often have special skills, especially in the fields of math, engineering, and technology. In this talk, John Elder Robison shares his story of life on the autism spectrum and as the founder of the only program that teaches a trade to special education students in a real-world environment. He reveals why companies should take an active role in hiring the neurodiverse, and navigates the benefits and pitfalls for both employer and employee. We can harness people’s special skills, he says, by looking for gifts instead of limitations. There’s much to be gained—for your bottom line, for the autistic person you employ, and for society at large—when hiring someone on the spectrum.
It was truly an honor to have John come to Eagleton School. Our students enjoyed the visit and they are inspired! He is an amazing and courageous human being and we are lucky to have had the opportunity to meet him and hear his message.
Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening
John Elder Robison’s bestselling memoir Look Me in the Eye is one of the most widely read and beloved accounts of life with autism. In Switched On, Robison shares the second part of his journey, pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery as he undergoes an experimental brain therapy known as TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation. TMS drastically changes Robison’s life. After forty years of feeling like a social misfit—either misreading other people’s emotions or missing them completely, and accepting this as his fate—Robison can suddenly sense a powerful range of emotion in others as a result of the treatments: “It was as if I’d been experiencing the world in black and white all my life, and suddenly I could see everything—and particularly other people—in brilliant, beautiful color.” The ability to connect emotionally with others for the first time brings Robison a kind of joy he has never known.
And yet, Robison’s newfound insight has very real downsides. As the emotional ground shifts beneath his feet, he must find a way to move forward without losing sight of who he is, what he values, and all he has worked so hard for. Robison is our guinea pig and our guide, bravely leading us on an adventure that holds the key to new ways of understanding the mysteries of the human brain. In this real-life Flowers for Algernon, he grapples with a trade-off, the very real possibility that choosing to diminish his disability might also mean sacrificing his unique gifts and even some of his closest relationships. Switched On is a fascinating and intimate window into what it means to be neurologically different, and what happens when the world as you know it is upended overnight.
Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives
The slyly funny, sweetly moving memoir of an unconventional dad’s relationship with his equally offbeat son—complete with fast cars, tall tales, homemade explosives, and a whole lot of fun and trouble
Misfit, truant, delinquent. John Robison was never a model child, and he wasn’t a model dad either. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of forty, he approached fatherhood as a series of logic puzzles and practical jokes. When his son, Cubby, asked, “Where did I come from?” John said he’d bought him at the Kid Store and that the salesman had cheated him by promising Cubby would “do all chores.” He read electrical engineering manuals to Cubby at bedtime. He told Cubby that wizards turned children into stone when they misbehaved.
Still, John got the basics right. He made sure Cubby never drank diesel fuel at the automobile repair shop he owns. And he gave him a life of adventure: By the time Cubby was ten, he’d steered a Coast Guard cutter, driven a freight locomotive, and run an antique Rolls Royce into a fence.
The one thing John couldn’t figure out was what to do when school authorities decided that Cubby was dumb and stubborn—the very same thing he had been told as a child. Did Cubby have Asperger’s too? The answer was unclear. One thing was clear, though: By the time he turned seventeen, Cubby had become a brilliant chemist—smart enough to make military-grade explosives and bring state and federal agents calling. Afterward, with Cubby facing up to sixty years in prison, both father and son were forced to take stock of their lives, finally coming to terms with being “on the spectrum” as both a challenge and a unique gift.
By turns tender, suspenseful, and hilarious, this is more than just the story of raising Cubby. It’s the story of a father and son who grow up together.
Be Different: My Adventures with Asperger's and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families,
"I believe those of us with Asperger's are here for a reason, and we have much to offer. This book will help you bring out those gifts."
In his bestselling memoir, Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robison described growing up with Asperger's syndrome at a time when the diagnosis didn't exist. He was intelligent but socially isolated; his talents won him jobs with toy makers and rock bands but did little to endear him to authority figures and classmates, who were put off by his inclination to blurt out non sequiturs and avoid eye contact.
By the time he was diagnosed at age forty, John had already developed a myriad of coping strategies that helped him achieve a seemingly normal, even highly successful, life. In Be Different, Robison shares a new batch of endearing stories about his childhood, adolescence, and young adult years, giving the reader a rare window into the Aspergian mind.
In each story, he offers practical advice—for Aspergians and indeed for anyone who feels"different"—on how to improve the weak communication and social skills that keep so many people from taking full advantage of their often remarkable gifts. With his trademark honesty and unapologetic eccentricity, Robison addresses questions like:
- How to read others and follow their behaviors when in uncertain social situations
- Why manners matter - How to harness your powers of concentration to master difficult skills
- How to deal with bullies
- When to make an effort to fit in, and when to embrace eccentricity
- How to identify special gifts and use them to your advantage
Every person, Aspergian or not, has something unique to offer the world, and every person has the capacity to create strong, loving bonds with their friends and family. Be Different will help readers and those they love find their path to success.
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's
Ever since he was small, John Robison had longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits—an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother in them)—had earned him the label "social deviant." No guidance came from his mother, who conversed with light fixtures, or his father, who spent evenings pickling himself in sherry. It was no wonder he gravitated to machines, which could, at least, be counted on.
After fleeing his parents and dropping out of high school, his savant-like ability to visualize electronic circuits landed him a gig with KISS, for whom he created their legendary fire-breathing guitars. Later, he drifted into a "real" job, as an engineer for a major toy company. But the higher Robison rose in the company, the more he had to pretend to be "normal" and do what he simply couldn't: communicate. It wasn't worth the paycheck.
It was not until he was forty that an insightful therapist told him he had the form of autism called Asperger's syndrome. That understanding transformed the way Robison saw himself—and the world.
Look Me in the Eye is the moving, darkly funny story of growing up with Asperger's at a time when the diagnosis simply didn't exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as "defective," who could not avail himself of KISS's endless supply of groupies, and who still has a peculiar aversion to using people's given names (he calls his wife "Unit Two"). He also provides a fascinating reverse angle on the younger brother he left at the mercy of their nutty parents—the boy who would later change his name to Augusten Burroughs and write the bestselling memoir Running with Scissors.
Ultimately, this is the story of Robison's journey from his world into ours, and his new life as a husband, father, and successful small business owner—repairing his beloved high-end automobiles. It's a strange, sly, indelible account—sometimes alien, yet always deeply human.