Growing up with Asperger’s syndrome made John Elder Robison, the bright son of a philosophy professor, a social outcast and, later, a high school dropout. But the now-successful businessman, author of the new book Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, believes that Asperger’s actually gave him a professional advantage over normal people, just as it might have done for Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and Dan Aykroyd: “The more different you are from other people, the more likely you are to solve problems in a different way. That may be a handicap in school, where they expect you to do things the teacher’s way. Once you get out of school, though, your difference can become a powerful advantage.”
Robison, who learned the hard way that coping in the real world is really just a matter of learning manners and social conventions, fills his book with practical advice for young Aspergians, using himself as an example.
“When I was small,” he writes, “I used a spoon to eat most of my soup, and then I picked up the bowl, tipped it, and drank the rest. It’s obvious to me that the most efficient way to ingest soup is to tip the bowl and drink it. Yet my grandmother said it’s rude to do it. For many years, logic prevented me from complying with rules of etiquette like that. I thought they were illogical and foolish, and I refused to go along. Eventually, I came to understand that I benefited from compliance with social rules, even when they seem wasteful and nonsensical. Today, a person’s positive impression of me is worth more than the small amount of extra soup I get by tipping and drinking.”
He also used to feel the need “to say everything as soon as I got a chance to talk.” Today, he writes, “I realize that I bored people silly. It was a sad day when I finally realized that most people do not care about the 66,000-horsepower MAN B&W diesel engines in the big American President Line container ships. So I stopped running off at the mouth.”
Now he envisions a mental clock in his head and urges others to do the same. “For the first 30 seconds after you start talking, imagine a green light in your head. After 30 seconds, the light turns yellow. At 60 seconds, it’s red. It takes some mental energy to monitor myself, but it works.”
The handshake is another helpful social tool, he’s realized. He used to slink into a crowded room and stand in a corner. “Now I embrace the handshake routine wholeheartedly, and it really works. People accept me much faster now that I ignore them less. The change is dramatic. This process is a secret of my success, one that helped turn me from a self-centred loner into a pleasant eccentric with a number of friends.”
At other times, his detached Aspergian personality has enabled him to step up in a crisis situation where normal people might flinch. He describes a road accident in which a drunk driver crashed head-on into his car. “Our car was cracking and ticking as the metal cooled. It took us just a few seconds to reach the passenger side of the [other] car, and when we did, the passenger was obviously beyond help. He had been killed on impact, impaled by torn metal. Some people would have been overcome by emotion. The wreckage, the noise, the blood. Not me. I saw a problem to be solved. There was a wrecked car in the road, a wounded guy trapped inside with a dead guy next to him.” Thinking the car might explode, Robison quickly pulled the driver out. He survived the accident.
For that reason, he writes, “I’ve often thought that Asperger people may be well suited to work as emergency responders. We may seem gruff and even uncaring, but our logical minds see the problems and the solutions fast.”
To succeed in life, he tells Aspergians, “Find out what you’re good at and stick with it. In school, a lot of emphasis is put on identifying your weaknesses and then improving them. That’s important if your weaknesses are holding you back, but it’s not the path to greatness. Greatness happens when you find your unique strengths and build upon them. Building up a weakness just makes you less disabled. Building a strength can take you to the top of the world.”