Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger'sby John Elder Robison
Ever since he was small, John Robison had longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits—an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother in them)—had earned him the label “social deviant.” No guidance came from his… See more details below
Ever since he was small, John Robison had longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits—an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother in them)—had earned him the label “social deviant.” No guidance came from his mother, who conversed with light fixtures, or his father, who spent evenings pickling himself in sherry. It was no wonder he gravitated to machines, which could, at least, be counted on.
After fleeing his parents and dropping out of high school, his savant-like ability to visualize electronic circuits landed him a gig with KISS, for whom he created their legendary fire-breathing guitars. Later, he drifted into a “real” job, as an engineer for a major toy company. But the higher Robison rose in the company, the more he had to pretend to be “normal” and do what he simply couldn’t: communicate. It wasn’t worth the paycheck.
It was not until he was forty that an insightful therapist told him he had the form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way Robison saw himself—and the world.
Look Me in the Eye is the moving, darkly funny story of growing up with Asperger’s at a time when the diagnosis simply didn’t exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as “defective,” who could not avail himself of KISS’s endless supply of groupies, and who still has a peculiar aversion to using people’s given names (he calls his wife “Unit Two”). He also provides a fascinating reverse angle on the younger brother he left at the mercy of their nutty parents—the boy who would later change his name to Augusten Burroughs and write the bestselling memoir Running with Scissors.
Ultimately, this is the story of Robison’s journey from his world into ours, and his new life as a husband, father, and successful small business owner—repairing his beloved high-end automobiles. It’s a strange, sly, indelible account—sometimes alien, yet always deeply human.
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A Little Misfit
It was inconceivable to me that there could be more than one way to play in the dirt, but there it was. Doug couldn't get it right. And that's why I whacked him. Bang! On both ears, just like I saw on The Three Stooges. Being three years old was no excuse for disorderly play habits.
For example, I would use my mother's kitchen spoon to scoop out a ditch. Then, I would carefully lay out a line of blue blocks. I never mixed my food, and I never mixed my blocks. Blue blocks went with blue blocks, and red blocks with red ones. But Doug would lean over and put a red block on top of the blue ones.
Couldn't he see how wrong that was?
After I had whacked him, I sat back down and played. Correctly.
Sometimes, when I got frustrated with Doug, my mother would walk over and yell at me. I don't think she ever saw the terrible things he did. She just saw me whack him. I could usually ignore her, but if my father was there, too, he would get really mad and shake me, and then I would cry.
Most of the time, I liked Doug. He was my first friend. But some of the things he did were just too much for me to handle. I would park my truck by a log, and he would kick dirt on it. Our moms would give us blocks, and he would heap his in a sloppy pile and then giggle about it. It drove me wild.
Our playdates came to an abrupt end the following spring. Doug's father graduated from medical school and they moved far, far away to an Indian reservation in Billings, Montana. I didn't really understand that he could leave despite my wishes to the contrary. Even if he didn't know how to play correctly, he was my only regular playmate. I was sad.
I asked my mother about him each time we went to the park, where I now played alone. "I'm sure he'll send you a postcard," my mother said, but she had a funny look on her face, and I didn't know what to make of it. It was troubling.
I did hear the mothers whispering, but I never knew what they meant.
". . . drowned in an irrigation ditch . . ."
". . . the water was only six inches deep . . ."
". . . must have fallen on his face . . ."
". . . his mother couldn't see him, so she went outside and found him there . . ."
What is an irrigation ditch? I wondered. All I could figure out was, they weren't talking about me. I had no idea Doug was dead until years later.
Looking back, maybe my friendship with Doug wasn't the best omen. But at least I stopped whacking other kids. Somehow I figured out that whacking does not foster lasting friendship.
That fall, my mother enrolled me at Philadelphia's Mulberry Tree Nursery School. It was a small building with kids' drawings on the walls and a dusty playground enclosed with a chain-link fence. It was the first place where I was thrown together with children I didn't know. It didn't go well.
At first, I was excited. As soon as I saw the other kids, I wanted to meet them. I wanted them to like me. But they didn't. I could not figure out why. What was wrong with me? I particularly wanted to make friends with a little girl named Chuckie. She seemed to like trucks and trains, just like me. I knew we must have a lot in common.
At recess, I walked over to Chuckie and patted her on the head. My mother had shown me how to pet my poodle on the head to make friends with him. And my mother petted me sometimes, too, especially when I couldn't sleep. So as far as I could tell, petting worked. All the dogs my mother told me to pet had wagged their tails. They liked it. I figured Chuckie would like it, too.
Smack! She hit me!
Startled, I ran away. That didn't work, I said to myself. Maybe I have to pet her a little longer to make friends. I can pet her with a stick so she can't smack me. But the teacher intervened.
"John, leave Chuckie alone. We don't hit people with sticks."
"I wasn't hitting her. I was trying to pet her."
"People aren't dogs. You don't pet them. And you don't use sticks."
Chuckie eyed me warily. She stayed away for the rest of the day. But I didn't give up. Maybe she likes me and doesn't know it, I thought. My mother often told me I would like things I thought I wouldn't, and sometimes she was right.
The next day, I saw Chuckie playing in the big sandbox with a wooden truck. I knew a lot about trucks. And I knew she wasn't playing with her truck correctly. I would show her the right way. She will admire me and we will be friends, I thought. I walked over to her and took the truck away and sat down.
"Miss Laird! John took my truck!"
That was fast!
"I did not! I was showing her how to play with it! She was doing it wrong!" But Miss Laird believed Chuckie, not me. She led me away and gave me a truck of my own. Chuckie didn't follow. But tomorrow was another day. Tomorrow, I would succeed in making friends.
When tomorrow came, I had a new plan. I would talk to Chuckie. I would tell her about dinosaurs. I knew a lot about dinosaurs, because my father took me to the museum and showed me. Sometimes I had scary dreams about them, but overall, dinosaurs were the most interesting thing I knew of.
I walked over to Chuckie and sat down.
"I like dinosaurs. My favorite is the brontosaurus. He's really big."
Chuckie did not respond.
"He's really big but he just eats plants. He eats grass and trees.
"He has a long neck and a long tail."
"He's as big as a bus.
"But an allosaurus can eat him."
Chuckie still didn't say anything. She looked intently at the ground, where she was drawing in the sand.
"I went to see the dinosaurs at the museum with my dad.
"There were little dinosaurs, too.
"I really like dinosaurs. They're neat!"
Chuckie got up and went inside. She had completely ignored me!
I looked down at the ground where she had been staring. What was she looking at that was so interesting? There was nothing there.
All my attempts to make friends had failed. I was a failure. I began to cry. Alone in the corner of the playground, I sobbed and smashed the toy truck into the ground again and again and again, until my hands hurt too much to do it anymore.
At the end of recess, I was still there, sitting by myself. Staring into the dirt. Too humiliated to face the other kids. Why don't they like me? What's wrong with me? That was where Miss Laird found me.
"It's time to go back inside." She grabbed my little paw and towed me in. I wanted to roll up in a ball and disappear.
Recently, one of my friends read the passage above and said, "Shit, John, you're still that way now." He's right. I am. The only real difference is that I have learned what people expect in common social situations. So I can act more normal and there's less chance I'll offend anyone. But the difference is still there, and it always will be.
People with Asperger's or autism often lack the feelings of empathy that naturally guide most people in their interactions with others. That's why it never occurred to me that Chuckie might not respond to petting in the same way a dog would. The difference between a small person and a medium-sized dog was not really clear to me. And it never occurred to me that there might be more than one way to play with a toy truck, so I could not understand why she objected to my showing her.
The worst of it was, my teachers and most other people saw my behavior as bad when I was actually trying to be kind. My good intentions made the rejection by Chuckie all the more painful. I'd watched my parents talk to other grown-ups and I figured I could talk to Chuckie. But I had overlooked one key thing: Successful conversations require a give and take between both people. Being Aspergian, I missed that. Totally.
I never interacted with Chuckie again.
I stopped trying with any of the kids. The more I was rejected, the more I hurt inside and the more I retreated.
I had better luck dealing with grown-ups. My disjointed replies didn't bring the conversation to an abrupt halt. And I tended to listen to them more than I listened to kids, because I assumed they knew more. Grown-ups did grown-up things. They didn't play with toys, so I didn't have to show them how to play. If I tried to pet a grown-up with a stick, he'd take it away. He wouldn't humiliate me by yelling and running to the teacher. Grown-ups explained things to me, so I learned from them. Kids weren't so good at that.
Most of the time, I played by myself, with my toys. I liked the more complex toys, especially blocks and Lincoln Logs. I still remember the taste of Lincoln Logs. When I wasn't chewing them, I made forts and houses and fences. When I got a little bigger, I got an Erector Set. I was very proud of that. I built my first machines with the Erector Set.
Machines were never mean to me. They challenged me when I tried to figure them out. They never tricked me, and they never hurt my feelings. I was in charge of the machines. I liked that. I felt safe around them. I also felt safe around animals, most of the time. I petted other people's dogs when we went to the park. When I got my poodle, I made friends with him, too.
"Look what your grandpa Jack sent you, John Elder!" (My parents named me John Elder Robison to honor my great-grandpa John Glenn Elder, who died before I was born.) My dad had brought home a wooly, ill-tempered, and probably genetically defective dog, most likely a reject from some dog pound. But I didn't know that. I was fascinated. He growled at me and wet the floor when my father put him down.
I wasn't scared of him, because he was considerably smaller than me. I had not yet learned that sharp teeth can come in small packages.
"Poodles are very smart dogs," my father told me.
Maybe he was smart, but he wasn't very friendly. I named him Poodle, beginning a long tradition of functional pet naming. I didn't really know what to do with a dog, and I was always squeezing him and grabbing his tail and yanking in an effort to figure that out. He bit me whenever I yanked too hard. Sometimes he bit hard enough to make my arms bleed, and I would cry. Years later, I told that story to my mother, who said, "John Elder, Poodle never bit you hard enough to make your arms bleed! If he had, that would have been the end of Poodle in our house." All I could say to that was "Little bites are a big deal to little people." And that's how I remember it.
Once, I locked him in my room and he got out. He chewed a dog-sized hole in the bedroom door. We found him lying in the sun in the backyard.
Seeing that, I tried chewing the door myself. My teeth barely made a dent in the paint. I didn't even manage to bite a splinter out of the wood. I realized that Poodle had very sharp teeth. I learned to put my toys away before I went to bed every night. If I forgot, Poodle would come in during the night and eat them.
My parents didn't like Poodle because he ate their furniture. Despite that, Poodle and I slowly became friends. I was always a little wary of him, though, because I never knew what he'd do.
Our home wasn't very happy. The dog ate my toys and snapped, and my parents always fought. One night, I awoke to them yelling at each other in the next room. They often fought at night when they thought I was asleep. It was always stressful and unsettling to me, but this time was different. My mother was crying in addition to yelling. She didn't usually cry.
"Momma!" I yelled loud to make sure she heard me.
"It's okay, John Elder, go to sleep." She came in and patted me on the head, but she went right back out.
I didn't like that at all. Usually, she sat with me, and petted me, and sang to me till I fell asleep. Where did she go? What's going on?
The loud fights were disturbing because I was sure they were fighting about me, and I knew if they got tired of me they could just leave me somewhere to fend for myself. I thought, I have to be really good, so they won't get rid of me.
So I tried to be very quiet and act asleep. I figured that's what they expected.
"He'll go back to sleep," my mother said, quietly. Hearing that, I was wide awake, and even more scared.
"No, he won't," my father cried. "He'll remember this night when he's forty." And then he started sobbing, too. Anything that made both of them cry must be very, very bad.
"Daddy! Don't make Momma cry!" I could not help myself. I wanted to hide under the bed but I knew they'd find me. I was terrified.
My mother came back in and sang softly to me, but she sounded funny. After a few minutes, though, I fell into a troubled sleep.
Much later, I learned that my father had been having an affair with a secretary from the German department at the university where he was studying. My mother told me she looked just like her. I guess the affair unraveled that night, and my parents' marriage unraveled some more, too. That was when my father started to turn mean.
When I woke up the next morning, he was still in bed. He wasn't at school. "Your father is tired," my mother said. "He's resting." I walked over to him. He smelled normal, and he was snoring. I left him alone and my mother walked me to school like she always did.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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As a swim and triathlon coach for disabled kids, 'Look Me In the Eye', served as an eye opener for me. Reading John's story, of his uncontrollable, odd habits- nick-naming people he commonly was exposed to, blurting out at what could have been seen as the worst moments, avoiding eye contact at all costs, and digging holes, only to stick his younger brother into them, enabled me to better connect to my students and maybe from my work with them, I was able to better connect to the book. Being known as a "social deviant" though oddly intelligent, wasn't per say the correct classification for John, which one could conclude after reading the book. 'Look Me In the Eye - My Life With Asperger's' proved to be hysterically funny at times, though often a sense of dark humor, but was able to pull the strings to your emotions as well. The book follows John's life from his hilairious childhood to his diagnosis (which he didn't reach until the age of forty) with Asperger's sydrome (a form of autism) into his journey of creating a family of his own and following his dreams of building guitars for the band KISS. I really enjoyed this book, the connections which I was able to make to it, and its' ability to pull on my emotions yet make me laugh a few pages later. My only complaint is that the book drew out, and was a little bit slow and hard to get through in the middle pages. This book should definitely be read by anyone (like myself) whom works with disabled children, any parent, as well as any teacher. I've never read a book quite like this, and thus have no further recommendations but my overall rating of this book is excellent! Enjoy!
When I first learned that I had to read a nonfiction book as part of an English project, I was a little less than thrilled, as I generally do not enjoy nonfiction reading. However, I was actually a bit excited to read Look Me in the Eye, since I have an interest in the topic of psychological disorders. I thought that I would find the memoir of a man with Asperger's Syndrome to be quite interesting. As I read John Elder Robison's memoir, I realized that my prediction was correct. I was fascinated by the descriptions of his thought process, entertained by stories of his antics, and saddened by some of the recollections from his rough childhood. His memoir was truly an eye opener for me; it allowed me to get a taste of what it would be like to be inside the head of an Aspergian. Reading this memoir made me think about some of the things that the average person takes for granted, such as the abilities to hold conversations, make friends, and simply look people in the eye. People had the tendency to label Robison as a "misfit" when he was a child, because he did not posses the aforementioned abilities, though he eventually learned how to adapt to the norms of society. Nevertheless, he still felt eccentric throughout much of his life, up until the point of his diagnosis at the age of forty. Despite the fact that he had Asperger's, Robison was able to accomplish a variety of things in life that most "normal" people could only dream of doing. By the end of the book, I felt proud of him and his accomplishments and began to wonder if I've ever encountered an Aspergian. His memoir made me have a better appreciation for what I have now and a better understanding of people with disorders. I would definitely recommend Look Me in the Eye for anybody who has ever wondered what it would be like in the mind of someone with any kind of disorder. It's certainly an interesting read.
I liked this book! I also read the authors brothers book....'Running with Scissors'....I suggest reading both!
An intimate and detailed emotional journey, `look me in the eye¿, is a well written, compassionate, deeply moving story that will have the reader laughing out loud on one page and on the verge of tears the next. Robison reveals what life was like growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father and his mentally ill mother. As a result of his inability to communicate appropriately, blurting out non sequiturs, and several other socially unacceptable behaviors, he was labeled a deviant. He found comfort with machinery. Dismantling and repairing various machines would lead to incredible employment opportunities, developing toys for Milton Bradley and guitars for the hard hitting rock group KISS and later for Pink Floyd. His life would be forever altered when, at the age of forty he was diagnosed with asperger¿s syndrome, a mild form of autism. Look Me In The Eye is much more than a memoir or biography-- Robison lifts the curtain and shines an unflinching light on life with asperger¿s syndrome. Well written and original, this heartfelt journey is a fascinating and entertaining read that will remain with the reader long after the book is returned to the shelf. Personally, I had only the briefest understanding of asperger's syndrome - however, this book has not only defined, with pinpoint accuracy the medical jargon, but the author allowed me a front row seat, with an unfiltered view of how his mind operates, the things that caused him difficulties and how he has learned to deal with each and made a comfortable life for himself and his family. Stunning! Happy Reading!
As a mother of an Aspergian, John's amazing recollect of childhood thought processes enlightened my understanding of my own child. Everyone must read this book!!!!
I like this book. People who do not have such disorders cannot understand how it feels. I think Mr. Robinson did a great job describing it while making the book funny, sad and entertaining all at the same time. I admire him for his courage.
I am reading this book to become a better parent. I have just two chapters left! The book has achieved it's purpose for me -- to gain perspective and empathy for my 10 year old son who has Aspergers. I am trying to see the world as he sees it, so that I can help him navigate through his childhood and toward a life as a well adjusted, happy, productive adult with meaningful friendships and social connections. If my son did not have Aspergers, I would most likely not have purchased this book. For me, this book is helpful. This is the first e-book that I've purchased, and I am dismayed that there are no folios, and I cannot easily tell how long the book is and how far I have progressed. I had to scroll to the end of the book to figure out that I only have 2 chapters left!
I bought this book because my eleven year old son has Asperger's Syndrome. I read it and then I let him read it. I wanted him to see that someone could live a "normal" life with Asperger's. We talked about the similarities that he shared with Mr. Robson. This book gave me a real insight into the mind of an Asperger's person. I highly recommend it for anyone who has an Asperger child, sibling or spouse. I've read other books about AS but you get a better understanding when you read something written by an actual AS person.
Revealing account of what an Aspie goes through and thinks! Very helpful for anyone that has someone dear to them with Aspberger's. Would recommend highly, you may just find some of your own traits revealed!
Incredible book. Helped me me understand my niece. Very thought provoking. An amazing way to view the world -- the same world I live in, but from so differently.
Great book, and as a person with this disorder/condition it was nice to finally read a book that made me understand myself and the disorder a lot better
There are so many books on the subject of Aspergers but not many written from someone who actually has it, which is what I LOVED about this. I can read the manuals and guides, but they never discuss why my son, who's on the spectrum, does some of the things he does. I found myself relating to so much of what John Elder discusses in his book and saying, 'Wow, my son does that, too.' and realizing that so much of what my child does is because of his ASD and not because he is trying to be difficult. I am thankful for the author's decision (and his brother's)to share his story with us. He has led a remarkable life and I hope he continues to share his numerous gifts with the rest of us!!!
I really enjoyed reading this book. It gave me an idea of what someone with Asperger's goes through and how they think. The book never once seemed slow and was very entertaining. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Aspergers and autism.
John Elder Robison writes one of the most enlightening memoirs the psychological community has seen in many a day. I have Asperger's myself, and when I first read this, I saw many parallels between myself and John Elder, including a substantial obstacle in interpersonal intetactions, a very pronounced inability to read and react to common social cues (e.g. eye contact, facial expressions, etc.) The key difference between the book and my own story is that I was raised with the proper diagnosis. Bearing that in mind, every school I ever attended did whatever it took to get me in contact with the world around me. I've come a long way since the day I discovered Iwas different from my peers. Nowadays, I have quite a few friends, and since we started college, we've stuck with each other through thick and thin, easy times and rough ones, and always been there for each other. Over time, I came to accept that I was different, and different is cool. John Elder, if you're reading this, I just want to thank you. Reading your memoir has really helped me get where I am today, and I've gotten to know myself way better. Plus, I like to read the funny, suspenseful, and entertaining stories interspersed throughout the book. Those made it difficult to put the book down! Keep up the good work!
The more I read of his life as an Aspergian the more often I think I find parts of him in myself. Imagine growing up with a different way of looking at life and not being able to explain yourself to others. His type of person wasn't even given a category in the DSM until he was out of school. His triumphal overcoming of the many disadvantages that he had are described, many of them not related to Asperger's. I don't want to say "his disease" because being different isn't always a disease. Early childhood can be terrible for those that don't react as the majority do nor understand what they are doing as well as why. Children learn how to react towards others from observing and copying others and maybe our society wants everyone to react the same way? How boring that would be. We all would be redundant, wouldn't we? At the same time, when someone asks you, "How are you?" they usually don't want to know but for an Aspergian, that isn't understood. So, they tell you and you politely run away and shun them. His unusual skills and intelligence helped him to survive but compassion and understanding from others finally helped him enjoy being alive. Read his life journey and marvel at his success.
Intense, funny, inspiring autobiography of a young man coming of age with Asperger's Syndrome. You can't possibly understand what goes on in the mind of someone with Asperger's Syndrome, if you are neuro-typical. The normal rules do not apply. But Robison describes the inner workings of his mind in a way that shows the incredible structure of an "Aspergian" mind. This is an excellent book for anyone trying to love and understand a loved one with Asperger's Syndrome.
So insightful...the characters are well-developed and intriguing. You leave this book with a deep respect for the author and his journey of self-awareness but also a desire to learn more about Asperger's. Very well written; I highly recommend!
I am a school teacher and have been around autism all of my life. My uncle has autism. 'Look Me In The Eye' gives you insight of the life of a boy and a man living with autism. John Elder Robison seems at the upper (higher functioning) end of the autism spectrum. Mr. Robison's way of telling his life story is phenomenal. I had trouble putting the book down. The insight that he gives about someone with autism is great. If you know anyone with autism or are in a profession that may have to deal with autism, this is definitely a book to read.
This book is a quick read showing the internal struggles of someone with this disease as only someone on the "inside" can do. It was a great eye-opener for me, especially to hear what the author is thinking and the way information is "mis-translated" by his brain to our ears. I learned so much and it increased my patience when dealing with others. I applaud this man for writing about his experiences with wit and good humor and thank him for helping me to understand. If you are at all on the fence about reading this book, read it. You will be amazed.
What an entertaining book! Though I don't know anyone with Aspergers, I do know a child who is austic. How wonderful to learn about this condition from someone who has it. Mr. Robinson's story is so interesting, he's living an amazing life. Thank you for taking us with you as you toured with KISS, to GA to your grandparents farm, on the many trips with Cubby, for introducing us to your parents and brother and for educating us about Aspergers. I'll read "Running with Scissors", next. This book is for anyone who enjoys a good, interesting read.
My step-daughter has Asbergers and I found this book not only highly entertaining but helpful in understanding how her mind works. I was happyto see that people with Asbergers can learn to overcome this disability and live a happy, successful life.
As the parent of a 10 year old with Asperger Syndrome, I found great comfort in Robison's book. I felt myself celebrating all of my child's differences and the book helped me see things in a different light. I enjoyed Robison's storytelling, I laughed out loud at many of his antics, and learned a lot about the way my child's mind works. It was an easy read, both entertaining and educational. I was amazed at the similarities between the author and my own child. I highly recommend this book for anyone, and especially those who know someone with Asperger Syndrome.
I have just finished this book and I cant wait to read "Running with scissors." I enjoyed this book and it really took you in to the way a person with Autism acts. At some points the things that were going on in the book made me go " whats going on" but then I had to stop and remined who wrote the book. The book is deffinatly a book you want to read about, learn or try and understand alittle more about Aspergers Syndrome.
Superbly written and fascinating story of a heartbreaking situation. It's not often that people with this disorder are able to express themselves so meaningfully. A book that was very difficult to put down!
I had only heard of Asperger's and this book was my opportunity to learn more. I was drawn inside the mind of someone who has a very different way of thinking and looking at things. The narrator's train of thoughts, though hilarious at times, is always very logical. Some of his personal struggles are easy to relate to if you have ever been misunderstood by people around you.