Friday, April 4, 2008

Some Asperger questions from the audience

The questions below came from a teenager with Asperger’s at Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative. She gave me a paper with these questions after I spoke to the students this past Monday. The questions were interesting enough that I decided to share them here:

Did you teach yourself social skills or did you have help along the way?

First, I learned social skills from my family. My mother and my grandmother taught me how to get dressed, how to hold a knife and fork, how to say please and thank you, and how to behave. None of that teaching had anything to do with Asperger’s – most any kid should and indeed must learn those things.

It was actually those basic skills that allowed me to go out and become self sufficient. If you learn anything at all as a kid . . . learn basic manners and behavior! You can get a job without math skill. You can even get work if you can’t read. But you can’t get any kind of job without the basic skills of manners and behavior.

These basic skills are really important for all of us.

Later on, when I learned about Asperger’s, I made a concerted effort to teach myself the kind of skills I lack because I’m Aspergian. I did this through reading, study of other people, and I did it with the assistance of my observant neurotypical friends.

What do you think people without Asperger’s can learn from us?

Have you heard the expression, “not seeing the forest for the trees?” Smart people without Asperger’s tend to see whole forests. They are very good at seeing “big pictures,” and imagining such concepts.

People with Asperger’s, on the other hand, are often “tree people.” We often have an extraordinary ability to focus in, By focusing all our intelligence to such a sharp point, we often make the technical breakthroughs that drive our world forward in science and technology and other fields.

I hope the above explanation helps show the difference in our two minds, and why human society needs both – working together – to achieve maximum success.

If there were ever a cure would you take it, or would you think it was like taking a piece away?

At age 50, I am comfortable the way I am and I would not want to take any pieces away. As a teenager, though, life was a lot harder and I’d have had a different answer if you asked me this at age 15. I guess we become more comfortable with ourselves as we get older and hopefully wiser.

I have Asperger’s and so do some of my friends. We are each good at different things. What kind of things do you specialize in besides electronics?

I love photography, motorcycles, cars, boats, ships, trains, and other specialized machinery. I like technical puzzles of all sorts. I like any technical challenge.

Why do you think Asperger’s makes people smart?

I don’t think Asperger’s makes people smart. There are many different ways to measure mental power. Often people with Asperger’s have powerful logical reasoning abilities, and the public tends to see people like that as “smart.” But you can be smart in other ways too. For example, someone with great social skills might not seem smart to some observers but the actual brainpower might be the same. You could also look at a great athlete . . . the fine control of his body all comes from the brain, and that’s yet another kind of “smart.”

So people with Asperger’s are just one example of smart. There are many others.

How do you get Asperger’s?

There’s a lot of controversy about this. I believe my own Asperger’s is inherited. You can see traces of how I am in both my son and my father.

Can Asperger’s be changed from a disadvantage to an advantage?

Yes. Read Look Me in the Eye and you’ll see how I did it. As we get older, the special interests that are annoying and troubling when we are kids turn into wonderful gifts as we move into the workforce and use our special interests. For example, as a kid, you can seem nerdy when you love dinosaurs and talk about them all day. But a grownup scientist who loves dinosaurs and goes out and makes great discoveries about them . . . he’s hailed as a genius and a brilliant scientist. That’s a good example of how life can change as we get older.

10 comments:

The Anti-Wife said...

Wonderful responses, John. I'm sure they learned a lot about life from hearing you.

Niksmom said...

De-lurking to say that I think your response to the "smart" question was brilliant and full of wonderful insight that many "nypicals" such as myself might overlook. Thanks for giving me a different perspective to see from.

John Elder Robison said...

Niksmom, you can thanks Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone from Harvard for that particular bit of wisdom. I got that particular insight during a conversation a few nights ago.

kyra said...

i love your answers, john, and i'm glad you put them up at the CNN site.

Polly Kahl said...

Great job, John. Love your positivity. Just curious, do you do sudoku? And what are some examples of technical puzzles?

Katie Alender said...

Great answers, John. I'm sure these kids are thrilled to meet you.

It's a shame that the obstacles faced by a child with Asperger's (and other kids with a scientific or otherwise academic bent) are magnified by the fact that our society doesn't place any kind of importance on science, research, or learning past what it takes to get by in school.

Though I'm a nypical, I remember the feeling of being "too smart" in school and wishing I could trade my brain for one that knew what to say and how to act. To this day, I have a subconscious habit of pretending I don't know something immediately even if I do know it.

Childhood is a beast! And it must be that much harder for a teen with Asperger's.

polyrhythmia said...

It's great when a kid with Asperger's is able to grow up and get a job that uses his or her special interests, but in most cases, if the aspie as able to get any job at all, it is something that is a poor fit, and makes no use at all of interests and abilities. Almost all the jobs I have had over the years are such jobs. Sure I can do them, but I could be doing so much better, though at my age, it is getting late in life to be able to change to a totally different kind of work.

Michelle O'Neil said...

I love your many examples of smart.

Woof!

aprilrist said...

John - Thank you so very much for taking the time to reply to these questions and for spending time with my students at the LPVEC. You truly touched them (and me) and they see a role model and inspiration in you. My deepest appreciation!!!
-April-

Jenn said...

My daughter (13 yo) was recently diagnosed with Asperger's. She has a hard time with being the 'weird' one at school. She is super smart and has interests that are of no interest to other 13 yo girls! Should her classmates be informed that she has Asperger's? How do we stop the teasing that happens to her on a regular basis? I think the worst part of this from my perspective is the teasing she endures, it breaks my heart, although she doesn't even recognize/acknowledge that she is being teased!