Friday, December 7, 2007

News of the week - The Elms, Lincoln Sudbury High, Billy the Kid, and more

Last Sunday, I spoke at The Elms in Chicopee. I’ve been working with Elms to develop and promote a graduate concentration in autism, and this talk was a part of that. Billed as “Inspiration and hope for families with autism,” the program featured presentations from Professor Kathy Dyer, four moms of autistic kids, Aspergian Michael Wilcox, and me.

The weathermen had forecast snow that afternoon, and we were into the Christmas season, so I wasn’t expecting too many people. We scheduled the Alumni Library auditorium, which seats about 100 people. I thought we’d be doing well to fill half the seats.

I arrived early so I could talk with the other presenters. I knew Kim, Michael, and Kathy, but the other moms were new to me. As I stood there, people began streaming in. Soon, the auditorium was full. Several of us walked to the meeting room next door, and we began carrying chairs into the auditorium. Soon, the aisles were full too, and people lined the walls. The college later reported that the foyer was full too, and they estimated we drew 275 people. The place was packed.

“Once we get everyone seated,” I said, “we’re going to have a fire drill.”

Each of us told stories about our life experiences with autism and Asperger’s. I spoke last, and then led a Q&A session. Each mom told of her struggles and ultimate triumph. Michael talked about learning to tie his shoes, and how to operate a left-hand can opener. Hearing about those simple things made me realize once again that things that are obvious to one person may be a complete mystery to another. I thought back to the day I first realized that I could tie my shoes all by myself. I was in a Greyhound bus, crossing the Cascade Mountains. We went into a tunnel, and I leaned forward, and tied my shoes quickly. All by myself, in the dark. I was so proud. The event ran into overtime, and was a big success. The size of the crowd certainly spoke to the interest our society has in autism. Before we began, I asked the crowd who had a personal connection to autism, and every hand went up.

Look here and at www.elms.edu/news for more events in 2008.

A few days later, I did a reading at Amherst Books. Amherst Books is a small store, and we had a more intimate reading with about 30 people. Even that small crowd was touched by autism, with several parents, three teachers and two psychologists.

Yesterday I went to Lincoln Sudbury regional school where I was scheduled to speak to students and staff. L/S is a very upscale school; one of the top rated public high schools in Massachusetts. Just before lunch, I spoke to 750 people in the main auditorium, including several families who’d driven in from surrounding towns. I did my best to be both entertaining and inspirational, but I knew I was talking to high school students, so I had a sack of eggs hidden behind the podium. To my surprise, though, not one egg was needed. The audience listened with rapt attention, and they did not throw a thing. It was not even necessary to sweep up after. I wish they were all that good, I said to myself as I reflected on some of my earlier performances, behind chicken wire screens in rowdy bars. Afterward, the special ed staff received a ton of emails from enthusiastic students.

They were a great audience, but the real highlight came before the talk, when I met Nick. Nick is a ten-year-old Aspergian who came all the way from Stoneham. I met him in the conference room, where New England Mobile Book Fair was selling up the book display. He was a little comedian, dressed in snappy blue jeans, white shirt, and tie. He was so excited he couldn’t sit still. After watching him circle the conference room 19 times, I suggested a walking tour of the school.

I don’t know if you’ve ever toured an upscale school like Lincoln Sudbury. It was a remarkable place. First, it’s all clean and new. It’s got a beautiful library, with new computers everywhere. It’s built on three levels, with atriums, like a mall. But instead of stores, they have classrooms. I saw all manner of specialty classes, including jewelry making. Nick and I went into the jewelry classroom, where we saw jewels piled on one side, and money piled on the other. Out back, we examined the air conditioning plant, and the bottle and paper recycling. I was impressed, and so was Nick.

Before I went there, I’d been told that today’s schools have driver ed training. People said L/S goes driver ed one better, with jet aircraft and helicopter training. I’d hoped for a ride on the Bell Jet Ranger but I could not find the helipad.

What a contrast. At my high school, we opened the windows for air conditioning, and we played with sticks and dirt. There was no dirt in evidence at Lincoln Sudbury.

After my talk, I met with about 20 faculty members, and we ended with a q&a session with IEP students in a conference room. We covered such diverse topics as Asperger’s around the world, jobs, medieval history, dating, and writing novels.

I had a great time, and I think the students did too.

After that, I headed ten miles down the road to the Barnes & Noble at Framingham Shopper’s World. After the huge crowd at the school, I didn’t expect too many people at my 7PM reading, but once again I was surprised. 100+ people arrived, overflowing the seats into the aisles. Once again, my talk ran into overtime with a 1-hour line after the reading.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of you at the end of the line. Those of you at the beginning of the line . . . you should thank the people at the end too, for being patient. We could have had a riot, but everyone was remarkably well behaved. I've been lucky that way. I guess that makes up for the riots like Savannah, when I was in the rock'n'roll business.

The evening crowd was older, with a mix of families and individual Aspergians. Once again, I said, “How many of you have a personal connection to autism?” Every hand went up. After my reading, several Aspergians in the front row made short statements of their own. I met a 76-year-old Aspergian who did not get diagnosed till age 72. There were younger Aspergians, too, and many moms and teachers. I met many several members of the Asperger’s Association ( http://www.aane.org/ ) and recommended AANE to a few more. I signed 103 books. Yes indeed – I kept count.

At B&N the last question of the night came from a female in the second row. She said, “How do you deal with the crowds? All the people?”

“I was scared at first,” I answered. “But the audiences are so interested, so warm, and so friendly. It’s the audiences, and their strong need to learn more. That’s what keeps me going.”

Stay tuned . . . I’ll be speaking in a number of schools right through 2008. Many of those events will be open to the public, and they’re popping up all over . . . from Groton (CT) to Houston to Cozumel.

And look for me at the Independent Film Center in Manhattan December 17th I’ll be there for Billy The Kid, a new documentary about an Aspergian teenager (see my previous post.) More details in the NY Times and at http://www.billythekiddocumentary.com/

And if your school wants to discuss an event, contact my speaker’s agent:
Lauren Verge
The Lavin Agency
222 Third Street
Suite 1130
Cambridge, MA 02142
800-762-4234 x 307

lverge@thelavinagency.com
See all of our fascinating personalities at : http://thelavinagency.com/

29 comments:

Holly Kennedy said...

I'm repeatedly amazed at how many lives have been touched by autism and/or asperger's.

Last night, I watched a CBC documentary on tasers. One young man who was recently tasered has asperger's and while trying to communicate with the police in a somewhat agitated state, two of them apparently flanked him and tasered his testicals, his hips, and chest. Then they beat him about the head before shoving him into a police cruiser. When I saw the pictures of his face, I literally felt sick.

This young man was upset about an argument he'd had with a friend and was standing on his friend's front lawn, yelling at the front window, trying to get his friend to come outside and talk to him, when the police rolled up.

Listening to him speak, I wondered if the police would have handled it differently had he appeared 'normal'.

E. said...

Thank you for another great reference, John. I watched the trailer and I am hoping for a DVD release or a screening in MN soon so I can see the entire film.

In order to help young Aspergians develop their interests and feel accepted in society we need to gain a better understanding of their perspective. The director of Billy the Kid tells in her blog how she met Billy and she thought to herself, "Who is this person, and why isn't everyone interested in him?" I think many of us who parent or have direct contact with Aspergians have this thought frequently.

Thank you Ms. Venditti and John for bringing the Aspergian perspective to those of us who are trying to make the world easier to navigate for our Aspergian children and loved ones. I have shared John's book with family and teachers and I plan to share this movie as well when I can get my hands on it.

Trish Ryan said...

Isn't amazing how many things you get to see now that your book is out there in the world? You get to meet kids like Nick, see schools with helipads and no dirt, and travel everywhere from Western Mass to Cozumel. So inspiring :)

Polly Kahl said...

Amazing.

Kim Stagliano said...

I was at Elms with John - he is amazing with a crowd. Funny as all get out. Holds them in the palm of his hand. I blogged my own horror at the event. Hey, John! You never told me I was supposed to prepare a speech to give!!! I whipped one together in my head as the gal before me spoke. Aye yi yi!!

If you can bring John in to speak to your group do it! Maybe I'll tag along? ;)

KIM

John Elder Robison said...

Well, Kim, let me tell you a secret.

I didn't know you needed a speech either. I had no idea what would happen, I just stepped up to the mike to fill the void.

Kim Stagliano said...

Damn, you ARE good, John! Woof! Now I know to ask the organizer, "Um, what the heck to you expect me to do?" And I'm packing my tap shoes, just in case!

WOOF.

niknak said...

Hi John, I was at the Shoppers World program and book signing last night. Stupendous.

I finished reading your book over a month ago but hearing you speak last night brought the floods of thoughts and feelings back into my mind. At the top of it all is this simple thing: I am so happy for you. You must be on cloud nine. I know I feel that way for you! An then there is the hope and inspiration you have provided to me for my 8 year old son whom I have mention in a past post. He is just like you. I only pray he turns out like you.

I wanted to post about a comment you made last night,to the effect of "the world doesn't need more misfits, it needs our gifts." Indeed that challenges me to discover and develop my son's special gifts (that are already pretty obvious). But if by misfit you are referring to Aspergians and the "odd" aspects about them, I think misfits are necessary in society. Not for being teased and ridiculed by "normal" people, but for balancing out the spectrum of personalities out there. I see it like this: if everyone out there were timid and there were no bold people to balance them, the human population could not survive (and vice-versa).

So the problem is the intolerance for types "out of the norm," not so much those who ARE out of the norm. That's why I worry about the over-use of certain drugs that can alter "undesirable" behaviors and personalities. I don't think the persuit of a common "type" of person is a worthy endeavor. Note I said OVER-use. I am not against medication. And when I say out of the norm I am only talking about Aspbergers and related diagnoses, not psychotic or sociopathic diagnoses.

And I also wanted to tell you I thought the most interesting part of your book was when you said you taught yourself social appropriateness. And that by improving socially, your savant gifts seemed to simmer down. Neurologically that makes total sense. But the part that I as someone who most likely does not have Aspbergers found eye-opening was that you said you preferred to have social intelligence over scientific. I guess growing up I was always told to "get off the phone and do your homework!!" It was always drilled into my head that social aspirations were "fleeting" or "futile." That worthwhile values included wisdom, education, understanding, love, kindness, etc. Getting by at the cocktail party, while fun, was always dismissed as earthly and useless in the long run.

Anyway, I've never met an Aspbergian I didn't like. And I especially adore my son and I wouldn't want him any other way. So far he doesn't suffer in his own skin, and I hope he never does.

I will contact your speaking agent to see if you might be interested in coming back to Metrowest to speak in the Dover-Sherborn regional school. I know you'd pack the place out here too.

Sustenance Scout said...

John, you're sure keeping your speaking agent busy! Way to go! K.

Stephen Parrish said...

The turnout may surprise you, John, but it doesn't surprise us, your fans.

Casdok said...

Lovely post!

Samwick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Muse said...

John,

You are spreading seeds of compassion & tolerance. This is your simple underlying message. People respond to your genuineness and honest straightforward manner of communicating. You don't need a script when you are speaking from your heart...

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

-Albert Einstein

inherwritemind1 said...

Hi John,

I was so glad to see you on my blog. Thank you! I don't know if you return to blogs after you've left a comment, but I responded to yours.

I just watched the slideshow of your childhood. You remind me so much of one of my children at a young age.

Woof to you, Rock Star.

John Elder Robison said...

Samwick, you make a good point. I struggle with my deficits every day. All those moments when I realize how dumb I just acted, or what I just said. Or when I am just lost.

I'm sure you know those feelings yourself.

To me, you've "become normal" when you have enough successful interactions that you get by despite the stumbles and blunders.

In my public appearances, I really see how everyone stumbles over the details of life. Sure, we Aspergians may stumble more, but each person really only knows his own reality, and those NTs feel their struggle just as we do.

Samwick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kevathens said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kevathens said...

niknak: Social skills are, like, totally important! I agree with John's observation in his book. I sometimes ask myself: Why have all of this knowledge in my head if I have problems communicating with people?

John said in a previous post that Tony Attwood says Asperger's is like fire, it's something we need, but I'm not sure that's true. It's just another way of being, there's really nothing to be afraid of.

First, though, we have to accurately diagnose it, and that's where we and our psychologists have a lot of catching up to do. (Please, someone tell me they're paying attention.)

YellowjacketandtheWasp said...

Test...........

YellowjacketandtheWasp said...

...This is the former Hank Pym , I bought JER's book recently !

HenryPym said...

...More testing...I am sorry to have to do this , but , it has proven EXTREMELY difficult to get signed in !!!!!!!!!!!

HenryPym said...

...More testing...I am sorry to have to do this , but , it has proven EXTREMELY difficult to get signed in !!!!!!!!!!!

Michael said...

John,

It was a pleasure to be on the stage with you. I've been too busy this past week to post some of the lovely pictures my lovely companion (Pat) took, but will do so shortly. Plus some comments, and maybe even a text version of the stories I told.

Check out http://mfw.us/ within the next day or two for these items...

ORION said...

Just checking in john! Sounds like your events are amazing...Saw your books in San Francisco! Am heading back to Hawaii as we speak.
It's too COLD for me on the mainland LOL.

Kim Stagliano said...

Hi, Michael! I so enjoyed meeting you at the event. Would you send me the photos too, please? Kim Stagliano at g mail dot com. My best to Pat.

Thank you.

KIM

law said...

I would like to thank Michael for his description of how he ties his shoes. I work with a seven year old who has not been able to do this. I explained how I had met a man who was able to find a way to tie his own shoes. A way that worked for him and was easier for him. In two days he learned how to tie his shoes! He seemed to glow with pride. Thank you Michael.

John Elder Robison said...

Law, did you know you can thank Michael directly at www.mfw.us ? Check his site out.

law said...

Thank you John. I did go to his website, but couldn't see how to contact him. I joined, thinking that that would allow me to make a post, butcouldn't find a place to do that, so I thought I would give my thanks here in the hopes that he would hear how much he had helped my little friend. If you can explain how/where I can contact him directly through his site, I would be happy to do so. I can navigate sites intuitively, others leave me confused.

lisa connolly said...

Dear Mr. Robison, I SO enjoyed your book. My step-daughter bought me a signed copy for Xmas from the Amherst bookstore. She also lives in Amherst. My son is 10 and was diagnosed when he was 4. We have made the dr. rounds culminating in a trip to the Yale Child Study Center 2 years ago. They emphasized that we should talk to him openly about his autism. However, he is in complete denial and refuses to admit he has it. I have just decided to let the matter drop for now. I make those kind of decisions all the time I am afraid. He doesn't seem to have any savant like talents and when he does express interest in something, it is almost the opposite of what you read about othher kids with AS. For example, he likes to play Guitar Hero and pretend to play his electric guitar, but has no interest in taking lessons or teaching himself with a DVD. Same thing for swimming, acting, other things he has been interested in. He still cannot tie his shoes or eat real well with utensils. He has really grown socially though and seems to be fitting in reasonably weel at school.
Our approach has been to keep him happy, try to build his confidence and not push him to where he has emotional meltdowns. I just really let him be himself most of the time. Most of the time I think it is the right way to deal with him, but I have moments where I wonder if we are just taking the easy way out and should confront him or push him more. He is really pretty agoraphobic, but he is doing a lot better with that too. He struggles at school, hates it, and really doesn't seem to be some closet genius. I always stand up for him at school and I know they think I am too easy on him. I just sort of inherently feel like he is going to be okay and find his way in the world if we all saty out of his way. Does this sound crazy to you? I know you are busy, if you ever get a chance to reply, I would feel honored. Thanks, I know you have illuminated many regarding this condition.