Aspergian light

Tony Attwood, Carol Gray, and me at the Asperger Association conference yesterday.

What is genius if not intelligence focused to a sharp point, a point that reaches beyond the rest of society? Isn’t that also a definition of some Aspergians?

Not all Aspergians have the overall mind power to meet that definition, but some certainly do. And that realization set me wondering . . . is there a genius who’s not Aspergian? Or do the two go hand in hand? Some of the greatest inventions the world has ever known have come from people who are otherwise so eccentric they could barely function in society. And yet they gave that society – a society that often mocked and ridiculed them - great things.

Yesterday, at the Asperger’s Association of New England conference in Boston, Tony Attwood said,

Asperger’s is like fire.

The world needs fire . . . for light, for heat, for cooking. Fire shines for millions and makes their lives better. But it also burns those who are too close.
Asperger’s is the same. The world needs Aspergians, for our creative talents. Without us, the world would be flat, dull, and slower moving. Our light shines over the whole world, with our music, our writing, our art, and our technical achievements.

It’s the fruit of Aspergian thought that makes the modern world possible. Without Aspergians . . . there would be no Einstein; no Newton . . . we’d still be riding horse drawn wagons to market. If that. Maybe we’d still be in caves.

But those Aspergians who do the creating; who do the thinking . . . we are often tormented. As are those around us. Burned by our light, as it were. Friends can protect us, but some will always be too smart and too driven to achieve contentment, whatever else they may attain.

Try as we might, we don’t always fit in. We can’t. Yet the world needs us more than they know. A world without Aspergian genius would be a world tranquilized on Valium, plodding from task to task. It would be the world portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984, come to life, but without the technology, because there would be no Aspergians to create it.

What drives us to be this way? In many ways, it would be easier to be tranquilized. The other night, at my Brookline reading, a young man with a tormented expression asked me, “If you could take a pill to make the Asperger’s go away . . .would you do it?”

No, I would not, I answered. With a pill, I’d be dull and lifeless. With a pill, there would be no spark. There would be no book, no creativity, and I would not even be here. How could I want that?

Later he came over and thanked me. He didn’t want a pill, either, but he wondered if he’d made the right choice.

Upon reflection, I wondered too. Because it’s easier to give up. As we make our light brighter, it shines over many more people, and brings the world greater and greater gifts. But do we ourselves benefit, or do we just burn brighter until we burn up?

Are we genetically programmed to do this? What drives Aspergians to create, if not a deep-seated need to shine this light for others on a dark road. Creativity is a surprisingly selfless act. Think about it. Did Einstein personally benefit from the theory of relativity, beyond the mental satisfaction of thinking up something new? And yet his thoughts changed the world, and touched million if not billions of people.


amysue said…
I think I've made it clear in past conversations that I agree with you here. I take it a little further though, I have known amazing people who carried all sorts of labels and dxs (Down Syndrome, Fragile X, Turner Syndrome, Bi-Polar Disorder, OCD, Tourette's Syndrome and more) who brought to the world their own light, their own fire and their own grace. It pains me to see so many people medicated (and worse) out of existence because they did not fit into the safe, typical and "normal" comfort zone of the rest of our society.

I spent two months sitting in a hospital, many years ago, with a young man who had been born with severe challenges and physical limitations. He never spoke or walked or even ate on his own, but to this day the joy of his smile, his eagerness to greet every day and every new experience remains with me and informs part of who I am. I believe strongly in true diversity so that everyone's voice can be heard and no one has to feel ashamed or worthless for being, looking or feeling different.
Ythanya said…
Thank you for reminding me about my shining light. Sometimes the road is so dark and there are so many people who need this light in order for them to see what people like us mean to the world.

Again though as if by some predetermined fate someone (this time you) has appeared to shine a bit of light on my path so I can see again. Things have now become clearer.

If you see Tony again do ask him about a little show he saw called ASPIE LIVE!

Anonymous said…
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Belfast said…
My partner & I went to the conference Friday (commuted 3+ hours to get there). Overheard people at book table saying you hadn't arrived (for bk. signing). Didn't know you had items in the art show that evening-so did I. We left Back Bay Events Center around 6 p.m.-outside the building I saw a man in orange shirt walking around, speaking intently on a cell phone. Thought "that's the author" but didn't dare interrupt-what if I'd guessed wrong & it wasn't you ? Gather it WAS you, from the photo with recent blog entry. Enjoyed seeing & hearing Attwood, after having read so much of his writing. Overall environment at conference was too much (sensory & social) for me so we left that night, though we'd intended to stay for the Saturday lectures as well. Wonder if AANE taped (audio/video) any of the sessions, I'd sure like to see & hear what I'm missing out on today.

Please pardon the self-centeredness of this comment.
Belfast said…
Forgot to mention, on the bright side: library phoned Friday to say that your book had come in, so I'll be picking that up in a day or two.
Greatly look forward to readiing that (and subsequently commenting from more informed perspective).
Polly Kahl said…
What a beautiful post, John. Thank you.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trish Ryan said…
I saw your interaction with that boy in Brookline, and it was obvious that your words of encourgement helped him. That's the good stuff. It was wonderful to witness that brief conversation and how it literally made the world a better place.
Sandra Cormier said…
This makes me wonder if many of the influencial artists and inventors in our brief history were Aspergians -- Da Vinci, Edison, Bell...
The Muse said…
The creative spirit is fire energy. Remember the Spanish have a beautiful word "duende" that describes the energy that is the center of our soul that is fire and passion. It is also a mysterious force or sometimes a demon spirit that possesses great charm and magnetism.

Perhaps Aspergians have an innate ability to tap into this energy. I don’t think that all geniuses are necessarily Aspergian; but I do agree that brilliant minds share many of the same characteristics as Aspies, having the sharp clarity of focus that is essential for all creative endeavors. I believe that Aspergians must channel this excess energy into something productive; otherwise this causes anxiety and stress. I know myself, I always have to be working on some project or making something. Or else I am bored out of my mind. I once went to a Chinese doctor and she said that I had too much “fire” energy. It is true that highly creative people must find ways to express this duende or creative spirit; otherwise we will become depressed or burn out...
John Robison said…
Kevathens, why did you delete your post? There was nothing wrong with it.

I too think robotically much of the time.

Chumplet, there have been a few books lately that suggest folks like you mention and many others are Aspergian.
thank you. we have a 14 y.o. daughter with aspergers, but she is so much more than that. you let me know she can grow and be an adult in this world that sometimes seems so unaccepting of some who are slightly left of center. we will be buying your book very soon, congratulations.
Dear Orange Shirt,

Nice to see you at the conference. I learned so much my head still hurts! As you know from our conversation, I agree with your upbeat assessment of the contributions that Aspergians have made over the ages and will undoubtedly continue to make.

As I told you, my life has many eerily similar parallels with yours. Like you, too, I have lately been focusing on the positive aspects of being an Aspergian (while at the same time learning how to live with and cope with the dark side of being different). I've spent most of my life wondering why 99.6% of the world didn't "get it" -- now that I know why, I feel a great sense of relief and realize there is a place for me. This realization also makes me appreciate the contributions I have already made, and allows me to look forward to doing more. I know you feel the same way, and your story is very inspiring.

Michael Forbes Wilcox
Chris Eldin said…
I've been lurking for a couple of months, not really along for the ride from the beginning, but happy to have found you and your writings.

My nephew has Asperger's, and I know my sister has such a hard time 'explaining' and 'justifying' his behaviors to others. A lot of people judge her (why can't you control your own son?). She's going through a really hard time right now. I've been waiting for your book to be released, and I ordered it a few days ago. I think your book is going to help her immensely.

I am so happy to witness your success. I hope conversations filter over to educators and others who work with children. I too, am against medication.

Anyway, I'm rambling. But I wanted to pop over and congratulate you and also thank you for writing your much-needed book.

John, I told you the story of the Aspergian woman who worked at a grocery store nearby. She was almost fired for her conversations with patrons based on the products they were buying. The pregnancy tests posed some awkward moments and customers complained. You can imagine some of the other subjects. I tried to explain to the manager that the unique conversational approach of this woman was NOT being nosy or insolent, but Aspergian. It was a tough sell. She did not get fired. However, she has resigned I've learned. I also know of a young man with Aspergers who lost his office job due to his style of conversing on single topics and how he was perceived to interrupt the workplace.

I think LMITE will go a long way toward education. It should be required reading for Human Resources Managers. In fact, I think that's a group you should target in your speaking. Human Resources professionals. That could make life so much easier for Aspergians, if they have a boss who "gets" them.


The Anti-Wife said…
You are a wonderful writer. Thanks for your insightful posts.
ORION said…
Disability is a social construct. Until we make "normality" a circle rather than a bell shaped curve we will always have to battle the label of "different" placed indiscriminately on people.
Thanks for posting about this. While some medications can be useful they are not a panacea for everything.
Route9 said…
Congratulations....just noticed you hit 13 on Amazon. Loved the book!
PS why did you take down all the music photography in your shop? I mean to ask you that 2 years ago and kind of just forgot. I really liked it.
John Robison said…
Route9, I just thought it was time for a change, and I swapped the music for Land Rovers and the Berkshires. I'll change it again soon.

Have you been able to get a copy of Look Me in the Eye yet?
Appletini said…
I like that... "Asperger's is like fire".....I have seen this in so many children that I have worked with :)
Jane said…
Thank you for a wonderful post, John. My son is 11 with Asperger's and has just started Middle School. I see the struggles he goes through every day trying to make sense of the world that does not fit his. Yes he is quirky and "different" but I see such a loving, intelligent young man who does have the power to contribute so greatly to the world.

I would love to meet Tony and Carol!
John Robison said…
Jane, have you played the clip from my audio book for your son? It's on the right sidebar of the blog . . .
Stephen said…
No pills for me either!

Autism is my get out of line free pass in life. What I do once I'm liberated from the requirements of what a kid should be - well I guess that is what I'm working on now.

I am 11. I am just getting started... If you get a chance, check out my blog at

See you in the stratosphere
Route9 said…
Hell it in 2 days(which is a huge deal when you have 2 little ones running around the house). Really enjoyed it!! Loved reading all about Wmass and found humor in things that most of your readers wouldn't. Like giving the police your Campus Center ID card. Pretty funny! The power lines references bring back some great high school memories. I think my husband is actually going to read it this weekend which shocked me because he never showed any interest when I compulsively read your brothers books. I think he would read anything about KISS.
piglet said…
so how about running for president john? hee, that's a joke. unless of course you'd consider it...

good for you for letting that young guy know you wouldn't suppress yourself with a pill. too many children are getting that as a solution or answer their supposed "problem".
Jessica Keener said…
Hi, John.
I heard you read at Brookline Books and was also struck by the fellow standing next to me who asked the question about taking a pill? The next day I told my 14- year-old son about you. He has non-verbal learning *disorder*--oh, i don't like writing that--He often talks about things being logical or illogical. Mostly, he says he needs his logic to deal with chaos in the world. I told him how you talked about thinking logically and how important that was to you. He wondered if he could talk to about that sometime.

I have 100 pages left of your book. It's an incredible story. Thanks for writing it. You're right about your light. You're a furnace! Best wishes, Jessica Keener
Anonymous said…
John: I basically scared myself by posting that. I'm paranoid about posting my own personal beliefs on the Internet, and usually carefully monitor everything I post. Muhahaha!

Anyway, I do think that in the future computers or robots may take over the role that autistics play today.

Still haven't gotten the book in the mail yet, but it's on its way.
Kevathens, I'm not sure John's lovely wife "Unit 2" ( I call her by her name, "Martha") will agree that computers can replace people with Aspergers! After all, you can't snuggle up with a CPU! And if you'll pardon my woefully illogical neurotypical mind, but don't we NEED you guys to make the computers? Enjoy the book when it arrives.

Kim, Mom to three little girls with full blown autism
John Robison said…
Kev, I'm glad to see you're back. It is scary to write about your feelings. You know, before my brother "outed" us in Running With Scissors, I thought all the stories about my earlier life were just shameful secrets, things to be hidden from scornful people.

And look at me know!

Tell a few more of your stories and watch to see what happens . . . you may be surprised.
John Robison said…
Jessica, have your son write me. I'm doing OK keeping up with correspondance so far . . .
John Robison said…
Route9, I'm glad you liked it. Did you ever ask me about KISS when you were at the shop, or did that never occur to you to ask?

I guess my book shows many sides of me that people who thought they knew me never saw.
Route9 said…
I kind of remember my husband wanting to ask you about KISS but not wanting to "bother" you. As you already know...sometimes you don't give off the vibe that you're into small talk :)
kristen007 said…
I have come across your book in passing the other day and I must say that so far I love it! My boyfriend has Asperger's and it has been great to learn more about how he thinks. We are in our teens but have been together for about a year now and I was wondering if you had any advice on relationships with people with this condition. I am trying to understand it and want to make things as comfortable for him as possible. Any advice?
Jessica Keener said…
Hi, John. Thanks for encouraging my son to write you. He's pondering his question and will be in touch.

Meanwhile, this avalanche of attention you're getting is almost the equivalent of a Kiss cross country tour. The best part is the hope you bring, and the insight. Thanks a lot.

Wishing you the best during your tour.

Jessica Keener
John Robison said…
kristen007, my best advice would be to find an Asperger support group near you. Where I live, we have the Asperger Association of New England. They have weekly get-togethers where people talk about issues like yours.

I certainly don't want to hold myself out as a relationship expert. The collective wisdom of a group of Aspergians may work well for you.
Hello, I am reading your wonderful book. (I listened to most of it on CD, on the road to help my terminally ill stepmom this weekend).

I couldn't resist "googling" you ... lo and behold! A blog! :-) I am sure will become a devoted reader here.

I have mild Asperger's (self diagnosed) as does my older daughter (she has been officially labeled by a professional). She is smarter and more insightful than I (aren't our kids always?) and she was the first to point out that Asperger's is a gift.

Thanks for writing and having this rich conversation with all of us. ;-)
Unknown said…
I just came across this blog, and am not sure how, or why. I don't personally know anyone with Asperger's--that I'm aware of, that is. Perhaps someone here can answer a question for me. I can understand why a politician with Asperger's would want to hide his or her condition, but why a media personality, such as someone in radio or television? Is it really that shameful for some people?
Ythanya said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Robison said…
JimK, some people regard Asperger's as a handicap, and they seek to hide it.

Others struggle to get through life, and they don't know why - like me. They are Aspergian and don't know.

There are any number of reasons anyone - media figure or Joe on the street - might hide having Aspergers, just as there are many reasons the same people might tell the world about it.
Fed up said…
Dear John,

I hardly post on blogs, but I had to write you. You are such an inspiration that I just found out about your book and can't wait to read it. I have a nephew and a niece with autism. My niece has Asperger's and my nephew is only two so it's hard to diagnose him, but we are getting help early in hope that he will start speaking. I think Asperger's has a voice, listening to the clip and picturing my niece, I think it does. I am currently a Grad student in Linguistics, this would be great research. My niece always tries to hide her identity because she thinks that if she is smart in something more than someone than she would be branded a "nerd" I try to tell her that it's not true, but she is always depressed about school and doesn't want to attend because she can't make friends. High school students can be very harsh to each other. I love her so much and I wish I can help her, we are very close and I would give her the world. Her mother opted not to medicate her as well because we didn't want a zombie, she has too much to offer. I hope her younger brother starts speaking, she didn't speak until about 6 years old, and now she can't stop but only to her family, no one outside her comfort zone. I will get her your book to read, she writes all the time, I always tell her to write how she feels and let it all out, that if she does it will help her feel better. I will also give her your blog, maybe she can find inspiration from you.

Anonymous said…
Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I saw the article about your book in U.S.A. Today and bought the book.
I began reading it last yesterday and just finished it. I could not
stop reading it.

I don't know your intention for writing it but the impact it has on my
life will affect many, many people. I speak publicly to thousands of
people every year in my work, and am now free to share this aspect of my
life with them, as you have shared your life. There is finally a way
for me to communicate what I am dealing with and I am sure, just as
you sharing your life, my doing so will give other people the freedom
to "come out of the closet".

First, I NEVER read novels, fiction or memoirs. This is a first in
more than 40 years. Second, I can't rember when I have read a book
straight through and FINISHED it. (I usually get bored or get the
information I need and stop.)

As I read "look me in the eye", I got more and more excited. I have
never heard of Aspergers Syndrome and it is now a very likely
explanation for the world I have lived in for 53 years. I am reading
everything I can find on the internet and have found someone in
Minneapolis that I am going to see for an evaluation. (So far from the
criteria, I seems obvious to me.)

I am very successful, and have a really great life but have never been
able to resolve for myself why I seem so different from other people
and disconnected. Recently someone said that I was a 'genious' which
surprised me as I have mostly related to myself as dumb about most
things. (I also quit school.) However, the things I am interested in,
I pursue to the point of mastery. What really resonated for me was
when you wrote about looking back at things you had done years earlier
and were amazed that you had done it. Like you, I seem to lose the
access to wherever I was thinking from at the time.

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your book made a real
difference for me. I also want you to know that it will help many of
the people I come into contact with as well as my family and friends
who will now have a context for dealing with me (beyond just adapting
to my "eccentricity").
Anonymous said…
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vh said…
We learned last week that our son 7) tests on the Asperger's spectrum. ADHD, PDD, etc., with no definitive diagnosis or prescription. He is a brilliant, beautiful boy, who is fascinated with trains, cars and how things work. He excels in his school work, but he can't sit still, does not interact normally with kids his age or "look at my eyes."

I heard you this morning on the DR show. I parked the car and sat in a parking lot and listened, enthralled, instead of going into work. Your story inspires us to continue to fight for our son, find a place where he can be safe in his skin and allow him to become the person he deserves to be.

Thanks for your wonderful message and having the "stuff" to share it.
Matty said…
Wow John! Great stuff and comments your are getting from the masses. You certainly have 'helped the world' or at least those in it that will listen and resonate with your message.

OK, that being said...MY LIFE is all about me! I have 11 books that need to be personally signed by Christmas! You have to slow down and meet me for a 'working lunch' at Panera. (hopefully we will not be innundated with paparazzi, but I have a fedora, glasses with a fake nose and 'stache for you if it looks bad)

Someday you may actually exercise again!! ;-)

Enjoy this time John and you certinly are making a great difference in a lot of lives. Hope to see you October 11th at Amherst reading. I, for one, loved your book just for the sheer fun of reading and laughing through it. I understand it's poingnant side and message of hope for many....but that that sh*t was funny as well!!!! ;-)

moonrat said…
congratulations--i'm seeing your book stacked EVERYwhere! i'm so happy for you!
S.L. said…
I really enjoyed this entry, as I have two daughters--one who is autistic & the other who is classified as "gifted" and I see many Aspergian sparks in her. And, wow, what a group--Grey, Atwood, & Robinson--very cool!

I love your reading, picked up your book this weekend (only 2 were left on display!) and have been reading it every break I get. I'm up to "Assembly Required" & just soaking it all in. I love the talent of your writing, and the story itself is so fascinating. Thank you. Oh, and, while at the bookstore I picked up Running With Scissors once I'm done with yours, that will be my next read!

Kanani said…
Yup, I recognize Tony.
So who's the dude in the shorts?

Sorry I've been away. I've been busy with a different writing project and I have one of my daughter's friends staying here at our house for a few days.

As far as the magic pill that would make Aspgerger's go away, that's like saying,
"If you could take a pill, would you make your YOU go away?"

Unknown said…
John-I am a neighboring woodland creature. I am a local artist (with a solo show currently up at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts) and live across the river in Florence. I know you have a very busy schedule but thought if you want to do something special and communityish with a little person from the neighborhood and have an hour one Wednesday morning, that perhaps you might consent to come on my radio show at valley Free Radio. This is a little volunteer-run station and my show is a lot of fun and I have a lot of loyal listeners. It has no production value and is not by any means important but it *is* important in that it is in your backyard.
My show is 8-9 am Wednesdays and is a very informal chat with local artists, writers, musicians, hair stylists (I once got an impromptu on-air haircut with headset on), poets, professional DJs from the big commercial stations, members of the young at heart chorus and various local characters and even including a tv weatherman once. My guests bring their own music and my listeners tell me it is like eavesdropping on a chat over coffee and they love that fresh approach. I am not important and with 100 watts I don't have a large reach. My audience is quality, not quantity. I am the little guy (although I am made of female bits), but it's us little guys that make this little valley go round.
I hope you will conisder this. Thanks.
Daly said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daly said…
(I had to fix my typos..sheesh!)

Thanks to you for writing this book!
When I finish reading it I plan to share it with family members and hopefully some neighbors so they can better understand my son who was diagnosed with Asperger's in the 4th grade. I have been homeschooling him since the beginning of 6th grade and it has made a tremendous positive difference in his life as well as the family as a whole.

Since my son's diagnosis I realized that my husband has some mild Aspie tendencies as well. Armed with this 'new' knowledge about my much loved husband has made me more patient and accepting of his eccentricities.
Unknown said…
Well Said...

I'm going to queue this post up in one of my blog entries.

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