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Book Review: "Look Me in the Eye" By John Elder Robison

A Story of Autism, Hope and Rock 'n' Roll

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Updated May 13, 2008

Book Review:

"Look Me In the Eye"

John Elder Robison
Look Me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison, is a fast-moving memoir that answers that question: could my child, with Asperger syndrome, survive without me? It's also a rollicking memoir of a child brought up in a dysfunctional household who finds love backstage as a special effects engineer for the rock and roll legend KISS.

You Should Write a Memoir

Robison is the older brother of Augusten Burroughs, author of the best-selling Running with Scissors. As anyone who's read Burroughs's book knows, Robison is the product of two highly dysfunctional parents, whose attempts to provide a secure, stable and loving family life end when Robison quits school and wanders off on his own at the ripe age of 15.

Interestingly, Robison decided to write his memoir at the suggestion of his famous brother. Burroughs explains in a forward that each time he did a signing for Running with Scissors, he was approached by readers interested in learning more about John, the brother with Asperger syndrome. Finally, says Burroughs, "I said to [John], You should write a memoir. About Aspergers, about growing up not knowing what you had. A memoir where you tell all your stories. Everything. About five minutes later, he e-mailed me a sample chapter. 'Like this?' was the subject line of the e-mail. Yes. Like that."

Aspergian - Backstage with KISS

Robison is clearly, in his words, "Aspergian." He is also amazingly lucky. He's the kind of guy who, just a few years later, would have lucked into an entry level job at Microsoft -- and wowed Bill Gates with his technical genius.

As it was, Robison just happened, through a series of lucky accidents, to wind up designing special effects systems first for Pink Floyd and then later for KISS. He rode the rock and roll wave and was right there for the sex, drugs and music. Luckily for Robison, being "Aspergian" also meant a complete lack of interest in sex or drugs, and instead, an engineer's fascination with rock and roll.

In addition to telling a heck of a good story, Robison does a fine job of explaining what it means to think like a person with autism.

In a sample entitled "One with the Machine," he describes an affinity with his special effects and lighting systems that many families living with AS will find familiar. "You've designed it and built it, and now you've become a part of it. It's come alive. Electricity is its food, and you are its brain. You have become one with the machine." Of course, not all "Aspergian" kids are lucky enough to become one with the entire KISS special effects board, but even a Lego Mindstorm kit can become an extension of self to a child on the spectrum.

Diagnosis: Autism

Later, Robison describes the experience of being diagnosed -- a buddy with a psychiatric practice recognized the symptoms. Robison asks his friend, "Is there a cure?" The friend replies, "It's not a disease. It doesn't need curing. It's just how you are."

The later chapters of the book become more analytical and less narrative, with a readership of adults with Asperger syndrome in mind. Robison explains his relationship with small talk, describes his marriage and his connection with his son and discusses the tools he's used to build social skills and a level of "normalcy" with which he's comfortable.

In the end, his take on himself is tremendously encouraging - both for parents and for young adults with Asperger syndrome:

"I'm not defective. In fact, in recent years I have started to see that we Aspergians are better than normal! And now it seems as though scientist agree: Recent articles suggest that a touch of Aspergers is an essential part of much creative genius."

Robison seems to be very open in communicating with his readers. If you're intrigued, you may want to visit him online -- either at his "official" website or at his blog. You can find both at www.johnrobison.com.

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