John Elder Robison, Author of “Look Me in the Eye” recently came out with a second book called Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers. This seems like a perfect title considering this is basically an owner’s manual for anyone recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism. Robison delves into many aspects that he had troubles with when he was a child, young adult, and even now.
Robison was 40 years old before he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. By that time he was a successful businessman, had been a flourishing electronic engineer for several famous bands and Milton Bradley toy company, and had taught himself how to deal with the neurological disorder that causes many to be social outcasts.
This book breaks down in to several sections of advice along with many great stories to help everyone including autistic and nypicals (a name Robison has given to neurotypical people). He touches on subjects including routines, manners, emotions, making friends and keeping them, dealing with bullies, sensory issues, and finding success with your talents.
I’m going to talk about some of the things that really caught my attention in the book. There are so many great lessons that I know I’m only scratching the surface, but these are things I found the most interesting.
One of the first things we notice as parents are patterns in our autistic children. This is a funny way that they are wired to make sure that things go a certain way. This is why we have routines including getting ready for school, getting ready for bed, and the way they eat or drink. At school Konner has visual schedules and timers to help transition times better.
We also notice at a young age that patterns and order are important. Many autistic children have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). They have to have all their toys in order. Konner used to line up his cars in color order, or make a line through the house using all of our shoes, and they had to be paired correctly. Robison talks about how he has the same issue, but he has learned to deal with it. He says that if he sees blocks they should be in a certain order, and as a child if they weren’t he would get upset. He says that through the years he has learned to accept that other people may put their blocks in a different order or just pile them up; even though there is still just one way they should go for him.
He writes about how these routines are really not that uncommon to nypicals, the difference is that autistic routines are sometimes more eccentric. An example is that everyone has a certain things that they may order when they go out to eat, such a favorite drink or item. However, an autistic person may have to sit at the same table facing the same way, with the same waitress, etc. He explains, “It often seems easier and safer to repeat something I’m comfortable doing than to try new things.” I think that’s true of many people. Konner likes to eat the same thing for lunch each day – Lunchables and juice. Rarely will he get a tray from the cafeteria, and he never does as a surprise. It has to be planned out and discussed previously.
Robison talks about manners, which is something we’ve struggled with in the past with Konner. While he is doing better now, there was a time when Konner would refuse to say please and I’m sorry. I was always raised to have good manners, and believe that you can get much further in life with proper etiquette. Robison discusses his struggle with his parents and grandparents over manners. He says that the difficulty he had was that he was a logical thinker and could find no logic in manners. As he got older he understood that they could help him through life. “I came to understand that I benefited from compliance with the social rules,” said Robison. He also said that he was glad that his family kept pushing him to have good manners. They say you have to pick your fights with autistic children, and I think this is one you should probably follow through with.
He talks in-depth about emotions. This was interesting to me. He says, “One of the most important keys to getting along in society is the ability to read the nonverbal signals from the people around us.” This is something we’ve been working with Konner on. Reading other’s facial expressions. He explains that he never understood, as a child, when adults would fake crying. They had no visible damage, so there was no reason for them to cry. That would get him in trouble because people thought that he didn’t care. He explains, “How could I care? I had no idea what was going on!” People thought he was a bad kid, when in reality he was just misunderstood. These are things that autistic children have to be taught.
There are so many other things that this book included, but I think I will save them to include in future columns.
I will say that if you are struggling to understand someone on the spectrum this book is very enlightening, and I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.