Monday, April 30, 2007

The Battle With Asperger’s

Many of you have read headlines describing “My battle with Asperger’s.” If not "my battle," certainly, "someone's" battle.

Is that real? Do we Aspergians battle our condition every day? Do we wake up and say, “This is it, damn it! This is the day I am gonna whup that Asperger’s!”

Right on!

I myself have never said such a thing. But I can’t speak for the other Aspergians out there. Perhaps a few who repeat that phrase every morning will chime in . . .

What is the difference between a “battle” and a “struggle?” To me, a battle involves weapons. A struggle does not. Also, battles end with more finality.

I battled the hungry bear that climbed onto my porch. After vanquishing him, I warmed the grill and had bear steak.

I struggled with my teenager over his homework. In the end, I sent him to his room, to remain there until the work was complete.

The difference between a struggle and a battle is, I hope, made clear by the above examples.

So do you struggle with your Asperger’s? I don’t.

What do I do?

I strive to fit in. I want people to like me. But I understand that I behave in ways that will be unsettling to some folks. For example, I am honest and direct. As a result, I know that, when I talk, some people will say, that’s admirable! Others will say, you rude arrogant bastard!

But it’s not a struggle. It’s just how I am. I don’t have to STRUGGLE to tell you the truth. I have to REMEMBER to do it with tact and finesse, so your feelings won’t be hurt, or you won’t be insulted.

If I want you to like me, I sometimes have to REMEMBER to tell white lies to get along better. For example, if I haven’t seen you in a while and you have increased in size, I now know that “You look fatter,” while true, is more likely to strain my relationship with you than “You look good.”

As an older and somewhat wiser Aspergian, I will probably (but not always – even I slip) say you look nice. As a teenager, I would sure have said you look fatter.

My natural state is to be honest and direct. Is that so bad? What does it say about our society that we Aspergians must remember to lie in order to get by? Even if the lies are harmless.

But that’s not my point. My point is this: We Aspergians do not battle Asperger’s. We don’t struggle with it. Battle and struggle are just words that happen to be in vogue right now.

What we do is STRIVE TO GET ALONG. Just like everyone else. We just have a harder time, some of the time.

I’ll bet struggle appears in my book. But I’m going to remember, from now on, to STRIVE, not STRUGGLE. You parents should remember that too. You may struggle with the schools. You may even battle the administrators in the parking lots. But it’s only because you strive to create a better life for your children. And you should have that goal for any child, Aspergian or not.

I'll be appearing this Saturday . . .

At the Celebration of Celts, http://www.celebrationofcelts.com/ at the Meadowgreens Golf Club on Route 9 in Ghent, New York.

The celebration is a 2-day Celtic heritage festival.

I've been a sponsor of the classic car show there for a few years. This year, in addition to showing cars, I'll be reading from my book. Come by and visit! It may be your only chance to see me wearing the kilt.

I'll be reading in the author's tent just after lunch.

It's 2 hours from Boston. Take the Mass Pike to Route 9, then go south for about 10 minutes. The course will be on your left.

It's also about 2 hours from New York, coming up the Taconic Parkway or Route 9.

I hope to see you there.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Smart kids and success

Who’s smart and who’s not? How do you tell? What will it mean?

Most people who grew up in the USA were given some kind of standardized intelligence test during high school. In my case, in 1970, the test results determined my placement in classes. We had Phase 1, II, III, IV and a few Phase V classes. The kids with the highest scores were in Phase V. Most kids, they told us, would be Phase III.

We didn’t talk about the kids in Phase I and II.

The scores were supposed to be a secret, but word got out. The guidance counselors told us we were in “percentiles.” Five was the average. Ninth was the highest. First was the lowest. I was a Nine, along with a bunch of other kids.

Our school was populated with children of the professors at UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College. So we might have had a smarter-than-average student body. That is, if you believe intelligence is inherited and you also believe college professors – as a group – are more intelligent than average.

If you were an Eight or a Nine, people talked about it. Teachers used it like a club, “So smart, and such a waste . . . .” they would say.

If you were a One or a Two, you kept quiet.

Would you think those tests would be a predictor of future success? Doesn’t it seem like the smarter the kid, the better he’d do? From what I can see, thirty some years later, it didn’t work out that way. It was the Phase IIIs that grew up to rule the world.

Long after high school, I founded my automobile business. In twenty years of caring for Land Rover, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Mercedes and BMW automobiles and their owners, I’ve met a whole lot of successful people. Sure, there are some geeks like me who made it big, but the vast majority of financially successful people are just regular guys, with one important difference.

They knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, at an early age. And they plodded steadily forward in pursuit of that dream. They didn’t give up.

For many, the dream changed or evolved. But they stayed the course, and it paid off.

Does being smarter – as measured on those long ago tests – make it harder to succeed? I think it may. Kids with high test IQs are more likely to study esoteric things – physics or molecular biology, for example. And careers that use that knowledge, while providing a good paycheck, don’t make many millionaires.

Most millionaires are made in very mundane ways, in fact. I know a good many of the most successful people in Western Massachusetts. Here are some of the things they do:
Own office buildings and commercial space
Own a few thousand apartments
Develop real estate
Recycle old automobiles
Manufacture candles
Own a bus company
Own a bunch of motels
Run hospital emergency rooms
Manufacture ice cream
Own and run restaurant chains
Distribute beer and soda

That’s a good cross section of who’s wealthy in America.

What happened to the Phase V kids? I have not kept up with very many, because more of them moved out of the area. Some of the ones I know . . .
Design software
Work in radar engineering
Teach engineering at a college
Invent electronic games
Own software companies
Analyze derivatives on Wall Street.

Good incomes all, but only the last one is financially on a par with the Phase IIIs I listed.

It has taken me many years, and an extensive study of myself and Asperger’s to understand what those Phase IIIs have in addition to determination that made them so successful.

The answer: Above average people skills.

Why don’t we test for that in school?

Why don’t we teach it?

Why indeed?

It IS teachable. I am proof. When I learned about my own Asperger’s, I read what I was doing that set me apart from everyone else. And I changed my behaviors. The result: I became more successful, fast.

Do teachers even know the importance of that? In my school career, which ended at 10th grade, I sure heard plenty about how I’d end up a zero if I didn’t master Math and Science and English. Never once did “social skills” appear on the threat horizon.

I’ll close with this: My friend Steve can’t read or write, at age 50. But he’s a millionaire, because he can run a cash register, he’s friendly, a good talker, and people love him.

Are we teaching the right things in school? Or do we just not teach enough things?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Look Me in the Eye is spreading

Last week the UK rights for my book went to auction. We ended up with a tie between two excellent houses, which we resolved by giving the book to Ebury Press. It looks like the British Hardcover release of Look Me in the Eye will directly follow the American release on September 25. And Random House Australia should follow right after that.

It's just amazing, the speed with which this is spreading. I know it's spreading because I've signed up for this "Google Analytics" thing. It gives a little world map with pins showing the location of everyone coming to my web site, www.johnrobison.com and blog.

And now, suddenly, I've got little dots all over the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and the far east.

I better get moving.

Ebury: http://www.eburypublishing.co.uk/
And Random House Australia: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/

The making of a book

Before I had ever written a book, I pondered the process. What happens after the author writes the story?

I now know that there are a whole crew of people who offer the creative input to make a book a success, and it’s kind of neat.

At every step of the way, more and more people take on partial ownership of the book. In the beginning, what I’d written was all mine. A few people had seen it and offered comments, but I’d pretty much created the initial pile of paper and words on my own.

The first person to join the project was Christopher Schelling, a literary agent who became my agent, after reading the four hundred single sided sheets I’d given him, in a cardboard box on the dining table.

He thought, “This is really good!” But it didn’t stop there. He also thought, “This sentence needs to be fixed.” And then there was another sentence in need of repair, and another, and another. He sent it back to me with notes, and he thought to himself, “I’ve helped make this quite a bit better. Let’s see what happens.”

Well, publishers loved it. That’s what happened. So (I) (we) picked one. At that point, there was me, Christopher, my mate (in person) and my brother (in his basement, on the phone.) A few days later, I thought, “I’m glad I picked Crown. They seem like they’re really going to do a good job.” And everyone else had similar thoughts, for both themselves and me.

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, my manuscript had picked up three more people, and they were now stuck to it, headed down the mountain. And when it rolled past Crown, it picked up a few more.

And it started to move faster. Rachel Klayman, my new editor, called and said, “Steve Ross, our publisher, has been talking about your book. He think’s it’s a story of inspiration and hope, and we should bring it out for the Christmas season, rather than the spring.” Clearly, Steve had stuck to my snowball. “I decided to publish it two hours after meeting him,” he told a reporter. Yes, it’s definitely his book, too, I said to myself.

So “my book” was now “their book.” But that was only the beginning. Rachel took her new manuscript home, and went to work marking things up. Hundreds and hundreds of little changes. Seeing all those changes, some would have said, “Leave it alone! Go write your own book!” But I realized that we had the basis of a symbiotic relationship. She could not create books without an author, and I could not convert my pile of papers into a book without an editor. And she proved to be a really capable one. It worked out well. When Rachel and I were done, I read what we have and thought, “Wow! This is something I could have bought in a bookstore!” It was significantly improved.

But it didn’t end there. There were assistants, folks like Lucinda Bartley, who – unknown to me – now say to themselves and colleagues and buddies, “I suggested he do that in Chapter 22,” and “that’s my sentence, there on 214.” And then it went to a legal reader, an attorney for the publisher. And she stuck to it, too. “I don’t think he’ll have any problems now,” she tells her friends. “There were a few edgy passages, but we fixed them.” And it’s going to be okay now, because of what she contributed.

And then it went to the copy editor, an un-named person deep within Random House. And it stuck to her, too. I know because it came back with a little note: “I really enjoyed working on this book.” And she had worked hard. The story Rachel and I had “finished” came back with hundreds of little changes. Periods. Commas. Italics. And little sentence repairs that once again added up to a significantly better book.

And now, it’s stuck to a whole new crew of people – the book designer – who decides how far down a page the chapter starts, and what typeface we use, and how big the first letter is. And the layout crew, who take all the words from everyone before and pour them into the book designer’s shape, adding their own little bits as they go.

So it’s a vastly more complex creative process than I ever imagined, and it’s not done yet. I had a realization: This is just like what happened when I worked as an engineer, designing electronic games at Milton Bradley. I’d go home and say, “I designed a new static protection system for Microvision!” My friend Bob would say, “I’m glad I figured out that motor control.” Scott would tell his girlfriend about building the breadboard that would soon be a custom integrated circuit. And somewhere, way up the line, there was a guy who invented the game and brought it to Milton Bradley to get the whole thing rolling.

And overseeing it all, we had the big bosses – Jim Shea, and Jake O’Donnell. Thirty years later, Jenny Frost and Steve Ross play those same roles at Crown.

So now I understand what book authors and game inventors really do. We wad some snow into balls, and toss it over the edge. And those snowballs gather tens and hundred and finally thousands of people as they roll downhill, each person proud to talk about their unique creative contribution. The publishers, the printers, the people who write the ad copy, and even the guy who figured out the just-in-time delivery system to keep the bookstores from running out at Christmas. Finally, at the end of the line, the sales people who say, “I really liked this book. You should read it!” and the readers, who do.

It’s truly something to be proud of. For everyone.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Aspergian Advantages

What’s it like, being an Aspergian?

Since I’ve never been any other way, it’s hard for me to compare myself to non-Aspergian people except by observation and inference. Since I hesitate to call such people “normal” I will refer to them as neurotypical, or NT.

Many NT folks who talk to me express sympathy for my condition. I don’t need or want sympathy! I am not suffering! What I could use is some understanding. When I don’t look you in the eye, or I say something unexpected – consider the possibility that I might see the world differently than you, and my response is not meant to be arrogant, or nasty, or offensive.

Having said I’m not suffering, what am I doing? I'm just existing. That’s what Asperger’s is. It’s a way of being; a way of thinking, seeing the world, and acting. I’m no more conscious of it from moment to moment that you are of your own conditions (whatever they may be.)

Anyone who’s read about Asperger’s knows about the “problems.” What about the benefits? Benefits, you say? Here’s an example:

I don’t learn things by having them told to me. I learn by experience and experimentation, primarily on my own. I’m very curious, always asking, Why? And I don’t see people and other things the same way others seem to. Here’s how that Aspergian attribute helps me go through life largely devoid of prejudice:

You or someone else may look at a person and say, “He looks Jewish.” I hear comments like that fairly often; we all do. Some, like, “He looks like a gangster,” or, “He looks like a pimp,” are meant to be derogatory. Others, like, “She looks really good,” or, “He looks like the engineer,” are meant to be complimentary. I don’t say things like that or make those judgments, because I am not aware of a reliable set of visual characteristics to identify Jewishness, membership in a gang, a person who works as a pimp, or even a good looking girl .

I do realize that some NT people are much more tuned in to subtle visual cues than me. I’m aware that some of them(you) may see a concealed gang sign on a fellow’s arm. Others may be able to pick out the girl 99% of the other guys on the beach will agree is hot. And a few may even be able to pick out a fellow Jew on the basis of appearance alone. Not me!

Others (as I have observed) think they can make those determinations, but experience proves them wrong nearly 50% of the time. An Aspergian like me would never take odds like that when describing and grouping people.

I can’t categorize people out of a crowd, and I know it. So I don’t expose myself to ridicule or worse by trying. And I have never myself been invited to join a social group (unless you count freaks and weirdoes as a group) so I don’t identify much with the whole concept.

As a result, everyone starts out on the same footing with me. We talk, and I ask questions, and form opinions based upon what I hear. If you bring a car to my service department, it won’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl. Or if you're white, black, brown or even a subtle shade of green. It won’t matter if you wear a leather jacket or a business suit or a t-shirt – I’ll ask you the same questions and I’ll do the same things.

You may think I’m rude or you may think I’m friendly, but really, I am what I am. I’m always the same. No matter how you appear. Every day of the week. I am very consistent.

To me, that’s an advantage. Others may see it differently, but I’m glad I’m that way.

Here’s another example:

I am very logical. And I’m not very emotional, at least not outwardly. Some people look at me and say, “He’s a robot.” Others liken me to Star Trek’s Mister Spock. Comparisons like that hurt my feelings. I don’t like them, but I do understand I sometimes act in ways that lead ignorant NT people to jump to those conclusions.

There are times when logical thinking gives me a big advantage. In business dealings, I am very unlikely to become overwhelmed by emotion. I just plod along, unexcited and on an even keel, to reach the logical conclusion.

And it works. I started life at the absolute bottom of the economic ladder, as a high school dropout. And now, in middle age, I’ve risen near the top. Many would say that’s evidence of better than average decision making ability. I think it is.

It’s certainly not evidence of a charming, friendly and outgoing personality! That’s not something I’ve heard said about too many Aspergians, and definitely not me.

Given a choice, I’d rather make most decisions based upon logic.

For both the examples above, it’s possible to think of situations where the way I am would put me at a disadvantage. But there are many more situations where those traits confer a huge competitive advantage. The trick is placing myself in situations or lines of work where my unique attributes will work for me, rather than against me.

To do that, I need to understand how I am, and how I’m different. Self awareness, they call it. That’s one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge any Aspergian can acquire.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The spring flood is here again



The fields around Northampton are flooding again.
According the the National Weather Service, 90,000 cubic feet of water are going over the Holyoke dam every second. There's not much threat to homes till the flow hits 120,000.
Water levels are holding or dropping up here.
This is the road around the back of the Oxbow, seen from my Land Rover. Beyond this, you need a boat.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Ulterior Motive Behind Free Drinking Straws

Have you ever considered the reason restaurants supply a straw with every drink, when serving soda, ice tea, or other non-alcoholic beverages?

"Customers expect them," you might say. And you'd be right. Customers do expect them at McDonalds or Starbucks. But those same people don't expect them at home. In fact, most of the people who drink through straws in restaurants do not use them at home.

Restaurant customers have been trained to ask for and expect straws. That's a more accurate explanation. How did it happen? Marketing, and repetition. Straws have been in common use so long that most of us have grown up with them. Straw at the restaurant, plain glassware at home has become the ordinary way of thinking for many of us.

What's the result? We drink more in restaurants. That's why they do it.

For the entire history of human evolution, splashing a drink on your face or at least your lips was an accepted and normal part of drinking. The introduction of straws changed the rules. Over tens of thousands of years, our bodies evolved to associate wet lips with satisfied thirst. Drinks that are ingested via straw don't touch out lips, and so do not satisfy our thirst as quickly. The result: we drink more.

Nowhere in the many articles chronicling the history of drinking straws have I read this simple truth. Do they teach it at McDonalds and Wendy's franchise school? I wonder.

Try it yourself next time you order a Coke or ice tea . . . skip the straw. Do you drink less? I wager you will.

It's an intersting point to ponder.

And how exactly does the lack of a straw reduce consumption? I'm not sure, but I have some ideas. One is this: you don't feel the need to take a drink while your lips are still wet from the previous sip. The straw gets around this inhibition, because your lips never get wet from the drink.

An interesting fact that reinforces this theory of mine relates to the carrying capacity of modern straws. Did you know that the plastic straws at today's fast food restaurants are 50% larger than the straws at soda fountains 50 years ago? It's true. Look at some old straws in a museum if you don't believe me. Stimulation of consumption is the only reason I can see for increasing the diameter of a straw.

As a child, I never once heard the complaint, This straw is no good! I can't suck enough juice through it!" Did you?

But the marketers were watching. If they could cause a drink to be ingested more rapidly, they reasoned, they'd be more likely to sell refills. And they were right. It worked. The high capacity drinking straw was a solution in search of a problem, and it's been a huge success for the foodservice industry. But has it helped us, the eaters?

There has been much made recently of the supersizing of American food. The high capacity plastic drinking straw has made a major contribution to the success of supersized drinks, alongside our supersized meals. High capacity eating and drinking have grown up together in America.

There are some drinks that are served with toppings - the head on beer, the whipped cream on hot chocolate - and the topping is savored on your lips and in your mouth. It's a part of the experience of drinking those liquids. And as a result, liquids like that are seldom drunk with straws, even today.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I've got a cover

Here's the cover the folks at Crown designed for my book. The face kind of says it all. I've been waiting a few weeks for the final approval of the cover at last week's sales conference. I'm excited to finally be able to post it.

On Monday, the marked up, copy edited, Look Me in the Eye went back to New York to be made into galleys. Only six more weeks!

And we've added a story . . . the Epilogue now closes with a nice story about my parents and their relation to the book. It's a much better ending.

The book is still selling on Amazon, and I'm told the other online retailers are going to catalog it soon, too. Here's a link to the book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Look-Me-Eye-Life-Aspergers/dp/0307395987/ref=sr_1_1/102-6459633-7606536?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1173798448&sr=1-1

Monday, April 2, 2007

My first book appearance

. . . was tonight, at Piccolo's in Westfield, Massachusetts. I was asked to speak to the Get Together Club about my book. I spoke to about 30 business leaders from the Westfield area.

The member who invited me, John Davies, introduced me so well that he'd already covered half of what I planned to say before I even stood up. I had prepared some notes, but I discarded them when I got up, and made up my talk on the fly.

That's the problem when people know you . . . they go on and on, and what's left for me to say?

Plenty, as it turned out.

All those years of making up bedtime stories for Cubby paid off. I talked about my life, and Asperger's, and my desire to do something to benefit society. Then I read the Prologue from the book, and answered questions. The questions went on for almost an hour . . . how do you recognize Asperger's? How soon can it be diagnosed? How did it change my life? What will happen with my car business?

No one fell asleep. In fact, the audience actually applauded on two occasions. At different times, three of the members laughed, and I even saw one pick up an egg, heft it in his hand, and then put it back down. All in all, it was a big success, and I went home clean and well fed.

My next appearance will be at the Celebration of Celts, in Columbia county, New York, on the first weekend in May. www.celebrationofcelts.com