As little as a couple of decades ago, there weren’t many books about autism on the bookstore shelves. Most were written by therapists or scientists interested in autism as a focus of study. Many of the books were filled with dire predictions of how autistic children had a slim chance of integrating into normal society. Yet over time the shelves began filling up with books written by parents and caregivers about their experiences in parenting a child on the autism spectrum. Clara Claiborne Park’s The Siege and Let Me Hear Your Voice by Catherine Maurice were two books I read voraciously following my son’s diagnosis. These books gave hope and inspiration that there are ways to help your child and that a diagnosis of autism is not necessarily the end of the world. Then a new type of author began writing about autism spectrum disorders, those people who had the disorder themselves.
Authors such as Donna Williams, Thomas McKean, Stephen Shore, and Temple Grandin opened the door into autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in a way that nobody else could. Through their writings, poetry, and essays we get a glimpse into what it is like to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. We are fortunate to have such writers who can describe how they think and feel about their experience and also to pinpoint those challenges of autism which are the most daunting from a first-hand perspective. Common themes arise in the writings of these authors including being misunderstood and bullied as children or even as adults. We get a sense of how difficult it is to navigate a world which does not usually accommodate neurological differences. Yet along with the hardships we also get to see the gifts of these individuals who, by their label alone, may be stereotyped as having only deficits.
John Elder Robison is another author who defies the stereotypes of autism spectrum disorder in talking about the gifts that he and other individuals who have Asperger’s Syndrome have to offer. Robison is the author of the much acclaimed bestseller, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. He has now written a new book entitled, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, which is currently on the bookstore bookshelves in hardback. I bought my copy last weekend and I found much wisdom in Robison’s book, and not just for those on the autism spectrum.
Here are some of the Robison’s reflections and advice which had particular meaning for me:
• The first sentence inside the book jacket reads: “I believe those of us with Asperger’s are here for a reason, and we have much to offer.” This is one of those life affirming statements which sets a course for looking beyond the label of any disability to discover the gifts in each of us.
• When Robison wrote, “I learned to accept the way other people do things even when I am sure that they are wrong” I had to smile. Who hasn’t felt this way before? Who hasn’t had the impulse to re-order things or perform a task more efficiently? It can be very hard for many of us to stand back and allow others their unique ways of doing things. Yet this is a skill which is esential for us all to get along.
• As a parent of a child having autism, I feel the pain of Robison’s description of feeling misunderstood and bullied: “Sometimes I felt like I was in a cage at the zoo, with nasty people jabbing sharp sticks through the bars.” This is probably the most apt description of what it is sometimes like to feel the hard stares, disapproval, and laughter in reaction to some of my son’s behaviors when we go out into the community. If I am feeling this pain as a parent, imagine what the child with autism or Asperger’s is feeling.
• “There are times when it’s better to keep your mouth shut” writes Robison as advice he got from his grandmother. I think this suggestion should be printed and posted in every home, workplace, and on-line forum. Imagine what a lovely world this would be if everyone would discern when it is not a good idea to say everything you are thinking.
• I nodded with appreciation when Robison talks about his love of nature: “I probably feel more at peace in the woods than anywhere else.” The title of one of his chapters is A Walk in the Woods. This is a phrase that my son who has autism repeats when he is in need of relaxation and de-stressing. My son loves the woods so much that he is a real tree hugger. I have many photos of him embracing his favorite trees. There is something about such a setting which puts my son at ease and me too.
• And last but not least, this may be my favorite quote of all: “Greatness happens when you find your unique strengths and build upon them.” So much of the focus of treatment for both autism and Asperger’s is to remediate a list of weaknesses. What is lost in this approach is that you may lose the opportunity to discover a child’s unique strengths in the process. Your child’s special interests or what some may call “perseveration” in a pejorative sense may really be the basis for a future career. In my son’s case, his passion is art and drawing. Whereas some therapists and teachers saw my son’s desire to draw everyday as obsessive, I saw it as practice leading to mastery and competence. Not to mention my son's art also brings him great joy. I am thankful my son has found a passion in life. How many of us can say that?
Reading John Elder Robison’s latest book, Be Different, makes me realize that in some respects people diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome are not so different from anyone else. They may have different challenges, sensitivities, and even gifts than some of us who do not have this disorder. Yet they are still navigating the same life skills everyone must figure out as in how to interact with others and to find one’s passion and purpose. I would recommend Robison’s book for anyone on life’s spectrum and that would include all of us.