Last winter I worked with Jennifer Venditti and Chiemi Karasawa to produce the film Billy The Kid, about a teenager with Asperger's in a small town in Maine. The film has received wide critical acclaim, with one reviewer describing it as, "The antidote to Juno."
It's definitely a real life story.
When the film came out I traveled to theaters, where the director and I did Q&A sessions after the film was screened. The best of those Q&As are now at the end of the film, and we will also upload them to youtube now that it's on sale.
Here is the official announcement:
A FILM BY JENNIFER VENDITTI - ON SALE OCTOBER 28EXCLUSIVE SPECIAL OFFER - SAVE 25%Pre-order now with promo code BTK25
BUY THE DVD
VIEW THE TRAILER
Add to your NETFLIX queue
Visit the WEBSITE
Available on Amazon.com
FOR EDUCATIONAL USE AND PURCHASE CONTACT email@example.com
“Many memorable dramatic films about adolescence have been made over the decades, but few of them can match the impact of BILLY THE KID, a striking, heartfelt documentary that deserves to have a long shelf life.”—Stephen Farber, The Hollywood Reporter
“The first twenty minutes alone is worth the price of admission for the contribution to furthering the language of documentary.”—Michael Lerman, indieWIRE
“As quietly inspiring as it is genuinely heartbreaking, BILLY THE KID is an act of passionate empathy.”—Geoff Pevere, The Toronto Star
“Venditti's enormously affecting documentary about a thoughtful Maine boy's coming of age has won awards at all four of the festivals it's competed in. Believe the hype.”—Time Out New York
Friday, October 31, 2008
Last winter I worked with Jennifer Venditti and Chiemi Karasawa to produce the film Billy The Kid, about a teenager with Asperger's in a small town in Maine. The film has received wide critical acclaim, with one reviewer describing it as, "The antidote to Juno."
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Those of you who read military history may recognize the term creepback. To my surprise, it’s actually available online, in Wikipedia.
Creepback was what happened when a stream of bombers attacked a target during World War II. The first bomber dropped a colored marker, usually red or green, that was meant to be the target for each successive bomber. But the later bombers would be flying in, looking at the destruction, and anxious to turn for home. So they’d tend to let their bombs go just a little before the plane before. The result: A line of destruction that “crept back” along the track of the incoming bombers.
Creepback was a particular problem for the Royal Air Force, who primarily attacked at night with long streams of bombers – over 1,000 planes at times - that took thirty minutes to an hour to pass over the target area. Creepback caused the bombs to scatter over a track several miles long during the run-in to a target.
What made me think of that, you ask?
I will tell you.
I was at an event today, when I decided to visit the men’s room. It was a large, crowded event, and the men’s room was crowded too. There was a long line between me and the facility’s two urinals. Being good citizens in a respectable place, the other would-be-urinators just stood there, waiting their turns. I did too, and being as I am, I paid close attention to what was happening.
I began to sense the creep back while I was still five people away from taking my turn. Finally, it was time. I approached the urinal from where I’d been waiting, a polite ten feet back. As I approached, I looked to my feet as it’s always wise to see where you are stepping in an environment like that. I was brought to a stop two feet from the urinal by the spreading puddle on the floor.
Unfazed by the prevailing floor conditions, I proceeded to use the facilities from the safe distance of twenty six inches, and I was able to step back a moment later with clean shoes. It's times like that when I am thankful for the advantage of height. As the next fellow stepped up to take my place, he did the same thing, but he stopped a little further back. Intrigued, I waited for two more people under the guise of washing my hands, and in a moment, they were commencing discharge a full three feet from the urinal.
I realized I was witnessing the same phenomena that caused the early bombers to hit the center of Berlin and later bombers to hit distant suburb like Grunewald or Spandau. It was obvious that today’s late urinators would not even have a hope of hitting the target urinals due to creepback.
That’s despite the fact that the urinals were all properly marked and plainly visible on the walls. They were not obscured by smoke or cloud cover, nor were they defended by antiaircraft guns. When that happened in the Second World War, bomber pilots chose alternate targets. And that’s what happened in the men’s room today, as I circled back through the sinks.
The closer creepback took the stream to the floor drain, the more inviting the drain looked. The scene around the toilet was already one of total destruction. I exited the washroom as a new group of urinators orbited the drain, trying to keep their feet dry.
Today’s air forces have better technology, and they’ve all but eliminated creepback. Bombs are actually guided all the way to the ground in many cases. Creepback lives on, though, in any crowded mens room. Visit any professional sporting event or overcrowded night club, and you’ll see it in action.
I've observed this same situation many times before, but it was only today that I was struck with the proper term for it. And now you know, too.
Posted by John Elder Robison at 7:42 PM
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
It seems like I’m driving to Boston every week nowadays! If you’re in town next Wednesday, come say hi! I'll be appearing at the Barnes & Noble, Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Ave, from noon to 1PM. This is part of the Snell Library Lunch Times Series. Call 617 373 2821 for more info.
Monday night I attended a review of this summer’s work at the TMS lab. I know quite a few blog readers have followed this study since its inception last spring, and you’ve been asking me for the latest news. For those of you who are new to this, the lab is run by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone. It’s located at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which is itself a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.
TMS stands for Transcranial magnetic stimulation, the use of high power magnetic fields to induce tiny electrical currents in the brain. Read the Wikipedia entry on TMS here:
The official lab site is www.tmslab.org
We were able to gather most of the volunteers plus three of the scientists and a few guests. It was actually our first time all together in one place. We reviewed our experiences, listened to the scientist’s presentations, and talked about where we go next.
I promised not to give away any secrets before the scientific papers are published, but I can tell you a few things.
We did two studies this past summer. One study measured brain plasticity in people with high functioning autism or Asperger’s and a neurotypical control group. That study was very interesting, because it showed some dramatic differences between the groups, as well as yielding some remarkable new insights.
I was amazed at how different the results were between us and the nypicals. But what does it mean? That is a subject for further testing and study. As the scientists point out, there are both benefits and drawbacks to any of these brain differences.
Here’s what I think: The more I know about how my brain works, and how it differs from other people, the better off I am. Most of my struggles on the interpersonal front stemmed from a lack of that understanding. For an adult like me, knowledge is truly empowering. And this work is providing insight I’ve never seen before.
The plasticity study was led by Lindsay Oberman, PhD. She’s planning a follow-on study that will begin this winter. Any of you who’d like to participate or know more can write her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Next we heard from Shirley Fecteau, PhD. Shirley ran a study using TMS to measure and influence mirror neuron function. Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that are believed to play a key role in empathy and human communication. And those are two areas where most of us on the spectrum have trouble.
If I were to sum up Shirley’s work in two words, they’d be: Powerful Stuff!
Shirley is working on cutting edge therapies to help strengthen that mirror neuron function in people like me. If you’ve heard me speak, you have seen the promise of this work firsthand. Take a look at the blog archives, for May, and watch the Challenge and Promise of Autism videos to see for yourself.
If you’d like to know more about Shirley’s work, or if you’d like to join the upcoming studies, write her at email@example.com
Shirley will be starting a new study this winter, and we have a new neuroscientist joining the team, Ilaria Minio Paluello from Italy. She will be continuing the work she began in Europe.
It’s an exciting time.
Posted by John Elder Robison at 11:25 AM
Monday, October 27, 2008
I can’t help but feel anger at the news that our tax bailout dollars are going to pay bonuses at these brokerage firms our government is bailing out:
I understand and agree with the argument that people who were not involved in questionable activities should not be penalized. But I think employees fortunes should rise and fall with those of the employer. If the employer is too broke to pay bonuses, that’s unfortunate but it happens every day. The government doesn’t give me bonus money to hand out when my company fails to make it.
I think it’s wrong for taxpayer’s bailout money to be used to fund bonus pools and the general operation of these firms. I firmly believe that these companies should be showing substantial sacrifice if they are to receive our dollars. Where’s the evidence of that? It’s certainly nowhere in the news.
What is this going to do to the image of the brokerage industry? It’s time for these people to wake up! We are going to have a whole generation of potential investors walk away from Wall Street and never look back. Those people may get bonuses this year, but I’d wager a large percentage of those jobs are going to evaporate next year. Why pay for financial advice if this is where it leads?
For years I trusted advisers to manage my investments for a 1% fee, or a 2% fee. Where did it get me? It got me to exactly the same place I’d have been if I’d just bought a stock market index fund and paid no fees. Except I have less money, because I paid thousands in management fees for what turned out to be no advantage.
My cynical friend Eddie says, “These stockbrokers are like race track touts. They don’t know anything. They get up and say sell to one guy, and buy to another, and they have to be right half the time!” While I’m sure many stockbrokers would disagree with that statement, it does reflect reality as far as I can see.
The fact is, no one really knows what the market will do, short term. History says it rises long term, but the degree of rise in the future is unknowable. So what should a person wanting to invest in the market do? People will answer that question in many different ways, but I am sure of one thing . . . the value people will place on the advice of brokers is going to be seriously diminished. This is too big a mistake for this generation to forget. The move to online trading – where anyone can make a stock trade for twenty bucks – will increase, and broker jobs will evaporate.
What kind of jobs will that leave at the heart of the brokerage business? I suspect there will be growth in computer network jobs, and huge cuts in sales jobs as that function is replaced with automation or simply shrinks from lack of demand. This market crash will precipitate the biggest change ever in the brokerage employment picture. Where will those displaced people end up? Will Greenwich, CT become like the suburbs of Detroit when the car plants went to automation?
It’s actually hard to imagine what all those displaced white collar workers are going to do. The general banking industry can’t absorb them – they have their own crises. What other fields do those skills translate into? Certainly the sales people can get into other sales jobs, but how quickly, and with how much disruption? With issues like that the effects of this economic crisis will ripple for years.
But with all that, there are still some bright sides.
I can now park on Northampton’s Main Street on the weekend. Traffic is thinned to a more manageable level.
The same thing has happened in restaurants . . . I can get seated for lunch without the previous 30 minute wait.
All I need now is some money to spend. Luckily for me, the demand for car repair rises in a falling economy. So my savings may have evaporated, but there’s work for Robison Service. And I hope people continue to buy my books. With any luck, we will all pull through this.
This afternoon I am off to Boston to attend a review of this summer’s TMS studies. Check back later this week for more news on our ongoing research.
Posted by John Elder Robison at 11:47 AM
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I drove to Boston today to do a short segment on Boston television. You can watch it here:
Me on Boston Fox 25
Here I am with the news anchors:
FOX25 has a striking new studio facility, with state of the art equipment, plenty of space, a big staff and anything a news person could want. Why not? They can afford it . . . They're a leading station in the #7 market in the United States.
My home town, Springfield, is market #111 according to Neilsen. We're more of a backwater. You can find your own city here:
I've visited quite a few television stations recently, and I was struck by something today . . .
The producer and all the staff at FOX were happy, friendly, engaged, helpful . . . all of those things. They seem to like their jobs. No one looked miserable. The people all wore nice clothes and the parking lot was full of nice cars. It was a big, expansive studio. A first-rate place, no doubt about it.
Within the past few weeks I've also visited Buffalo, New York, and Dayton, Ohio, two of the more depressed cities in the US. Their television stations looked somewhat threadbare in comparison. They were clean and neat, but the equipment was well used. It was long past the age where FOX25 would have retired it, if what I saw is any example.
The people on the street in those cities are dressed economically, and the cars are older, compared to Boston. In Buffalo, it seems like every third storefront on Main Street is boarded up. In Boston, you have to struggle to find a single vacant spot in the heart of town.
There are huge differences between Boston and those depressed cities. Per capita income - one comparitive measure - is several times higher in Boston.
And yet . . .
The people in Dayton and Buffalo were just as happy, friendly, engaged, and helpful as the folks at Boston's FOX25. They also seem to like their jobs. None of them looked miserable, either. Their clothes may have been plainer but they were neat and clean and the people on the street were the same.
The contrast in property and objects was striking. Given that contrast, the sameness of the people was equally striking.
Many studies have found the same thing . . . once you get above a subsistence level (which varies quite a lot from place to place) and meet the need for basic necessities, extra money and more things does not buy much more happiness, if any.
But there's one caveat . . . . As long as everyone around you is in the same boat.
Everything looks threadbare in those rustbelt cities, and the average person is just like everyone else. He's therefore just as happy as the average person in Boston or Seattle, where everything looks new. But if you put that average fellow from Boston into an average apartment in Buffalo, he'd be bummed, for sure. Relative position is what seems to matter, once you have the basics.
Anyway, I just realized what a powerful comparison it was. I was thinking how happy and friendly the people at FOX25 were, and how nice the place was. And I couldn't help but think the same good things could be said of the people I met in those poor places, despite the physical surroundings. The guys running the old gear with the paint rubbed off had exactly the same geek pride as the guys in the brand new state of the art studio. The physical surroundings seemed to have no effect on how they felt. We all read ideas like that all the time, but somehow they strike you differently when you experience it firsthand.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
I've made it home from this weekend's talk at the Disability Film Festival. Here's a link to my hosts, the Museum of DisAbility History http://www.museumofdisability.org/ New York State is developing a Disability Awareness Week in its schools. My talk followed a showing of Mozart and the Whale. The museum had programs running all weekend; several hundred people attended.
Buffalo itself is a somewhat depressing place, but nearby Niagara Falls is quite a spectacle. The fellow who hosted me at the museum took me to see the sights the following day. We had a really nice time. Jim Boles is president of People Inc, a western New York human services agency.
Here are some perspectives of Niagara Falls that you may not have seen . . .
This first shot shows the Niagara River racing toward American Falls. This shot shows the stream that feeds the Bridal Veil section, which is a small fraction of the total. It looks smaller in this photo because you're seeing a small part of the whole that's broken up by islands.
Here's that same stream as is goes over the edge. Doesn't look so insignificant anymore! The water is only 1-3 feet deep as it goes over the falls, but it's moving very fast.
This is the American Falls seen from the bottom. The base of the falls is filled with rubble that's fallen over the years.
This is as close as one can get to the Horseshoe Falls without actually going over. The Maid of the Mist can be seen a few hundred feet below.
Finally, we have the rainbow's end a few hundred feet downstream.
These pictures were taken with my Canon G9 pocket camera, which had a very rough time at the base of the falls where I was just inundated by sheets of water. I convert the pictures to 16 bit color in Photoshop and use a plug-in to expand the dynamic range in the colors. The actual scenes look fairly black and white because the water mist soaks up the color with its whiteness. But the colors you see are all there, all the time. They're just hidden.
There are no crowds there at this time of year. The air is cool and the water is cold.
In addition to Niagara Falls, we also visited the home of Buffalo Wings, ate Beef on Weck, and checked out the cars at the Pierce Arrow museum. I'll post more photos later.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
. . . . And each one picks up a telephone.
That sounds like some kind of joke, but it’s not. I actually credit the insight for this story to Paul Van Dyck, a well known radio personality in Portland, Oregon. Paul happens to be blind, and we had a fascinating talk about our respective conditions.
What do Asperger’s and blindness have in common?
Both conditions leave us unable to read body language or visual cues in others. We can’t instinctively read faces, like sighted nypicals (I know, that sounds like some kind of bird. For the rest of this little story I’ll say nypical but I mean sighted nypical. Blind nypicals aren’t nypical anymore. They’re blind) To succeed in life, Aspergians and blind people need to develop other skills to compensate. And some of those skills become very apparent . . . you guessed it . . . on the phone.
When we speak on the phone, all we have to work with is the spoken words and the melody of the voice coming through the phone. For nypicals, sight is the brain’s top priority when engaging other people. Much of their brainpower is focused on the other person’s face and occasionally their body, to divine those important unspoken messages.
Blind people and Aspergians can’t do that instinctively. Aspergians can only do it with conscious effort and practice, and blind people can’t really do it at all. But we can do something else – we can pay very careful attention to the words and inflection of people who speak to us. Since we’re not tying up brainpower reading nonverbal cues, we are free to deploy those resources to analyze speech. And we do it well.
When I spoke with Paul, I was struck by the clarity and precision of speech, and the way he immediately “got” what I said. In the middle of our conversation, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that telephone conversation is a place that both of us can really develop a competitive advantage in life. In face to face meetings, we’re disadvantaged because we don’t see what’s obvious to most nypicals. But on the phone, the tables are turned. We’ve compensated for part of our disability by increasing our ability to process and interpret spoken words, and when sight is taken out of the picture . . . voila! We’re on top.
There have been many times that I've done a phone interview and the other person says, "You sound so good on the phone . . . I can't believe you have trouble connecting to people in person." It took a conversation with a blind man to show me the answer to that.
I'll be interested to hear what some reader's thoughts are on this issue.
Meanwhile, we'll return to the bar, where Jimmy the Dwarf is stepping out with a full bottle of whiskey. . . .
Random House Academic Marketing produces an annual magazine for teachers, librarians, and other professionals. This year's theme is banned books. You can see the content and download articles here:
You can also order print copies for your school through that link.
There's an article about the writing of Look Me in the Eye inside. Here's a link to a PDF version:
And I'd like to invite you to one of my appearances this month:
On Thursday, October 16, I'll be at the Barnes & Noble at Boston University, 660 Beacon Street, at 7PM. Store phone number is 617 267 8484
On Friday, October 17, I'll be be appearing at the Disabilities Film Festival and Speaker Series at the Market Arcade Theater in Buffalo, NY from 6-10PM. Contact Tess Fraser firstname.lastname@example.org
On Thursday, October 23, you're invited to join me for a women's education fundraiser - meet the authors - Elms College, Chicopee, MA at Berchman's Hall from 5-7 p.m.
And then Wednesday, November 5 I'll be back in Boston. I'll be appearing at the Barnes & Noble, Northeastern University, from noon to 1PM. This is part of the Snell Library Lunch Times Series. Come to 360 Huntington Avenue in Boston. Call 617 373 2821 for more info.
For those of you who read my blog through syndications or feeds, remember that my current schedule is always on the sidebar of the main blog at http://jerobison.blogspot.com
Monday, October 13, 2008
I got another foreign edition in the mail today, and I suddenly got an urge to gather some up and post them. From the top, from left to right, we have: Australian edition (bestseller), British hardcover, US paperback, US and Canada large print edition, Brazilian edition (bestseller), brand new Dutch edition - retitled I Always Liked Trains Better, original US and Canada hardcover, NYT bestseller hardcover in library binding (with a plastic sleeve that you can't see in the photo), and finally the abridged audiobook, which I narrated.
Not shown are the unabridged audio, and editions for Germany, Portugal, Japan, China, and other places that have yet to send me books.
And while we're uploading pictures . . . I call this next image Bridge to the Sky. It's an abandoned railway bridge crossing the Connecticut Rover at Montague, Massachusetts.
The brilliant color in these photos comes from a dynamic expansion add-in for Photoshop. All the colors you see are actually there in the original images. I don't change the colors; I just work to bring them out and make them glow.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Here's the Range Rover, ready to leave work on Friday afternoon . . .
Three Morgans in a line
The world through Singer headlamps
An old car glows in the late afternoon sun
The classic E-Type coupe. This one came down from Canada.
This twin cam Jag engine is all chrome and glitter
A late model Morgan at dusk
An old MG
These images are all from the British Invasion at Stowe, Vermont. I'm a bit late sorting through all the pictures because I left at 6AM on the last day of the show to begin my west coast tour.
And for those of you in the Boston area . . . stop by and say hello at the Boston University bookstore this Thursday evening.
Friday, October 10, 2008
People online ask me about the kind of questions I'm asked at my speaking engagements. A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to speak to Google through their video conference network, and they've made a full 1-hour talk and q&a available on authors@Google.
In this video you can see and hear the whole thing including questions from Aspergians, geeks, teachers, parents, mental health people, and others (whatever other may be.)
Thanks to all the folks at Google's Boulder offices for putting this together.
While we're on the subject of Google . . . I am working with a product called Sketchup that allows people to create 3-D shapes and manipulate them. I will have a separate story on that soon.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
I've added three Boston appearances to my schedule, and to my embarassment, one is this Tuesday and I forgot to post it till now . . .
Tuesday, October 7, Burlington, MA
Join me at the Burlington Barnes & Noble, 98 Middlesex Parkway at 7PM. I'll be speaking, answering questions, and signing books. 781-273-3871
Thursday, October 16, Boston, MA
I'll be at the Barnes & Noble at Boston University, 660 Beacon Street, at 7PM. Store phone number is 617 267 8484
Wed, Nov 5, Boston, MA
I'll be appearing at the Barnes & Noble, Northeastern University, from noon to 1PM. This is part of the Snell Library Lunch Times Series. Come to 360 Huntington Avenue in Boston. Call 617 373 2821 for more info.
Hope to see some of you at these events.
I had a great time at the AANE convention this week. Thanks to Dania Jekel and the AANE staff for having us out, and thanks to all of you who attended.
Friday, October 3, 2008
I have written and spoken about the tremendous potential for changing one’s life in a positive way through brain plasticity. All of us have and use brain plasticity to some degree. It’s a natural part of life. We rewire our brains every time we learn a new skill, make a new friend, take a new job, or do anything at all that requires new ways of thinking and doing.
Brain plasticity is what allows you to play the piano instinctively after years of practice, when in the beginning you struggled to pick at the keys. Your brain reconfigured itself to make something that was difficult or impossible into something totally natural. The same thing happens much more quickly when you get fitted for a new pair of eyeglasses. At first, the world moves in a weird way. But within an hour or two, it’s as if you’d worn those glasses forever. That’s how fast your brain can adjust the way you process visual information.
Interestingly, recent research suggests that Aspergians like me may have considerably more plasticity than most people. It's possible some of us get life advantages from this trait, but it's also possible that excessive plasticity leads to mental disorganization or confusion in autism. Studies I participated in this summer suggest my brain may respond to changes very quickly, but it's slower than normal to return to it's original state. So when I put on a new pair of glasses my vision might adapt and normalize very quickly, but if I took them off, my vision might be slower than yours to return to the "pre-glasses" state.
It's hard to know how tests like that - measuring plasticity in a lab over a few hours - relate to larger reconfigurations like I describe here.
Significant rewiring takes place whenever one learns a new skill, so it’s no surprise that my brain underwent quite a bit of change as I’ve gone through the process of writing, publishing and discussing Look Me in the Eye. I’ve acquired many new abilities and insights, most of which are good. There’s no question that I’ve changed in ways that make me more acceptable to a larger number of people.
The TMS experiments I’ve participated in may have taken my brain rewiring even further, but I was well on my way on the basis of life changes alone. In total, the developments of the past two years are certainly one of the biggest packages of changes yet in my life.
I always wanted acceptance from other people. I wished I could overcome my lifelong shame, and the feeling that I was a fraud waiting to be exposed. I wanted to be able to engage others in the ways I observed, but could never do myself. I believe I’ve accomplished those things, in large part. Five years ago, I’d never have dreamt I’d be where I am today.
That’s a major change . . . it reaches far beyond adjusting my vision for a new pair of glasses, or acquiring a new technical skill. Learning to engage people differently brings with it the potential for a whole new way of life. But there’s a downside . . . what happens to everything that came before; the life one leaves behind?
Suddenly, I find myself in middle age, and it’s as if nothing I’ve done before matters. All my previous achievements – especially my work life - seem like they focused on machines, and it’s as if they’re for naught. And so much of my life is organized in support of those machines . . . I’m surrounded by them. I’ve made a huge shift in direction, and my life work so far was following a different path. What do I do now? This is one of the first times in my life that I’m really at a loss.
It’s almost feels unnatural to go down the old paths, and I have yet to find my way on a new one. I’m really not sure what to do, or how to do it. I’m usually pretty focused and decisive so this situation is sort of unprecedented for me.
I’ll let you know what I figure out.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
My brother and I will be speaking at the Asperger Association conference this Saturday, and I'll be doing a separate Q&A later in the day. I'll also be around all day to talk to people individually.
The event is at the Best Western Royal Plaza just north of the Mass Pike on 495.
Hope to meet you there!