A Letter to High School Students

Over the past week I received a dozen letters from students who read Look Me in the Eye as part of English class in Southbury CT. At first I thought to answer them one by one, but now they're coming by the dozen and I thought I'd answer them all here.  

You asked about my childhood pranks.  Why did I do them, and how could I do such awful things?  Two passages in the book seemed to stand out for a number of you. One was when my parents were taking us to a therapist, and my little brother was too young to accompany us. I was about 14, and he was 6.  I suggested we chain Varmint (that was what I named him) up in the basement, and several of you asked: was that sarcasm, or did I really do it?

Yes, I really called him Varmint. Many of you have brothers and sisters.  I suspect, if you admit the truth, each of you has wished to chain your sibling in the basement on more than one occasion.  Did you actually do it, or was it only an idea? Remember, in the book I just suggest it.

The second thing you noted was the hanging of the mannequin. You asked how and why I’d do such a thing. It started with the abandoned clothing store dummy.  I could not leave such a treasure to be carried off with the trash, and I had to think of something to do with it. 

Several of you observed that you could be arrested and punished if you did such a thing today. I agree, you could. But times were different when I was growing up. Keep in mind that I wrote the book about growing up in a small town in Western Massachusetts, and I still live there today.

The book does not say this, but later in life, I got to know the owner of that store. She remembered me carrying off the mannequin, and proudly put a signed copy of the story on her wall. Many of the people who appear in my stories remain friends today.

One of you remarked on the time I sent my biology teacher a truckload of gravel. Years later, I met the owner of the quarry, and he still remembers the irate call from my teacher. So the takeaway from that is, however awful those things may seem when you read them on paper, in town they were just kid pranks, and we remember them fondly.

Compare that with today, where everything around school is tightly regulated. No one talks things over anymore. You have fights at school and the police are called. Everyone turns to the authorities to solve problems because the ability to work things out has been lost. Sure, my pranks were irritating. But how does that compare to today, when an angry student comes to school with a knife or gun and kills someone? Today all this student frustration is bottled up and hidden and when it explodes, it’s deadly. My own angry outbursts were essentially harmless. No one actually got hurt, no matter how awful it sounded. I didn’t feel the need or desire to shoot or stab people.

One of you asked about Little Bear, and why she does not have a bigger part in the book. When I wrote Look Me in the Eye, we had been divorced a number of years, and I guess that’s the reason.  If you wonder what happened, she reappears in Raising Cubby – the story of raising our son – and in Switched On – the story of my experiments with brain stimulation. 

A few of you asked about drugs and drinking – how did I avoid that, on the road with rock and roll bands? Some of you mentioned peer pressure.  As an autistic person, I was pretty oblivious to a lot of what went on around me, so I was probably not as sensitive to peer pressure as some of you. Also, I did drink and do drugs that were set in front of me.  I’d sample what was being passed around.  But I would not keep at it, night after night, getting hammered like others I saw. My violent drunk father put me off of that I guess. I didn’t buy drugs or drink when I was not on the road.

I guess I had enough trouble understanding the social dynamics around me without adding the complication of being a drunk or high fool also. As I got older, my interest just dissipated. When I stopped going on the road, I pretty much stopped all that too. Beyond that I really don’t know why I ended up drug and drink free, when so many others (including my own family) wrestle with addiction. My parents, brother, cousins, and grandfathers all had substance abuse troubles, so I must have the genes. Watching them – especially when I was a kid – may have scared me off.

 Several of you commented on Asperger’s, autism, and how those are part of my adult sense of identity. You rightly observed that I grew up without any knowledge of autism, but I certainly knew I was different. Other kids had friends, other kids were invited to join teams and groups, other kids were popular and I wasn’t. What could a kid in that position conclude, except that they were defective; not as good as the others?

That was what I heard, in all the pronouncements that I’d never amount to anything. But it had kind of an opposite effect. People must have said, “you’d be successful if you’d just act right,” a thousand times. I heard, “You’d do really well if you put your mind to it.” Everyone ascribed my troubles to behaviors they assumed I could change, so in that telling, becoming successful was within my grasp.

And that is indeed what happened. I taught myself electronics and became a successful engineer, and then I taught myself about cars and became successful with them, and then I took up writing and that was a success too. It’s not that my life was all success – I had many failures on the way – but I was persistent both because I wanted to show my critics, and because I assumed it was “succeed or starve.” No one else was taking care of me.

What if I’d known I was autistic from age 5? What if people had whispered how I’d be in special ed, how I probably wouldn’t be able to live on my own, how I’d probably never get a good job or marry?  That is what many kids hear today about autism. There is a benefit to having a non-judgmental explanation for how we are different, but an autism diagnosis comes with a very low set of life expectations, at least on the part of many teachers and parents. If I had been told my future was turning 18 and filing for social security disability, would I have been driven to do any of the things I did?  

When I was a teenager I began gravitating toward places freaks and geeks hung out. Those included the science fiction society, the technology center, and the engineering lab at the local university. I am still friends with some of the kids I met there. What’s amazing is how many of us turned out to be on the autism spectrum or have kids who are autistic.

That shows how I was able to find others like me, even before I know about autism. Now it’s way easier to find similar autistic people.  We’re forming communities online and in real life. We even have a word and movement: neurodiversity.  

Some of you will make autism or other neurological difference part of your identity. When that happens, you are embracing neurodiversity – neurological diversity.   Autism, ADHD, and other neurological differences are labels a doctor or psychologist gave you. Medical terms. Neurodiversity is the concept that those things are more than medical problems. Some degree of neurological diversity is a healthy thing and contributes to human diversity. Neurodiversity is our word – those of us who are neurodivergent.  We wear that badge with pride, which is a great alternative to the shame surrounding the medical labels we had before.

As high school students you might wonder what comes next. For students who want to go to college, but need some help getting ready, Landmark College is the first neurodiversity college in the country.  All the students at Landmark are neurodivergent, and proud of it. From there it’s a short step to regular colleges that embrace neurodiversity. I’m the Neurodiversity Scholar at William & Mary, one of the top public universities in America. I’ve advised neurodiversity programs at Drexel, Carnegie Mellon, UMass, and other schools, all of whom are proud of their neurodiversity initiatives.

When you look for work you’re going to see a different landscape. Companies from SAP to Microsoft to Home Depot to CVS are embracing neurodivergent people, under the moniker of Autism at Work. Autistic people with greater challenges are supported by programs like Project Search.  That’s wonderful to see.

There has never been a better time to be different. 

(c) 2019 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He co-founded the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and an advisor to the Neurodiversity Institute at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay will give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 


David Skidmore said…
Hi John

I've been diagnosed with Autism Level 1 just last week at the age of 54 years. It explains a lot but I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say I identify with your life in its various aspects (and with your brother given my sexuality and alcoholism). Maybe I've given too much information already but I appreciate the opportunity to tell my truth and say how I enjoy your books as well as supporting your neurodiversity activism.

David Skidmore
My son's a little older...homeschooled highschool and then went to tech school at age 17 to study CNC machining. This year he quit his job, and has taken on cleaning up and replacing a motor in a 1983 Mercedes Benz. He feels like he's doing nothing, not working, not going to college...but I had him read this, and understand he is a lot like you in that he teaches himself a lot, and is always busy learning something. He met you once at a CDC autism thingy, and thinks you walk on water. You are the only person he will read to keep up with autism related info. He has enormous respect for you. Thanks for being there for so many people. It can't be easy.
Unknown said…
John, thank you so much for your book. I see I have a lot more reading to do, but also to re-read Look Me In the Eye. Fifteen years ago a young member of the family was diagnosed with Asperger's, which sent me to the Internet. What was it? I gasped when I saw that the symptoms precisely described my husband of many years.
I felt relieved! Now I know why life with him has been so difficult.
the years I was angry with him, now I was understanding, from your book, that he is "wired" that way. Live with it. Live with it, I did, but now, more than that, I understand where it comes from !
He was highly successful in the electronics world but a total klutz at socializing. He never laughed, or cried. His face wore one expression. I was alone, even when we were together. He was always inside his own head, not noticing the things around him. I could go on which would bore you, but for me your book brought on an absolute epiphany. I'm not so mad at him any more.
I loved your book. Many thanks.
R. J. Stoll

Popular Posts