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John Elder Robison talks about life with Asperger's Syndrome in his book Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
John Elder Robison talks about life with Asperger's Syndrome in his book Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

What's it like to live with Asperger's? John Elder Robison tells all Add to ...

"Twenty years ago, this conversation would never have occurred between us," says John Elder Robison, his voice calm and unemotional. From across the table in a downtown Toronto boardroom, he looks me in the eye - briefly - then looks back down and continues to explain "the profound, positive transformation" he began to experience at the age of 40.

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"The idea that some guy would walk around and take pictures of me," he says, indicating The Globe's photographer, "and I would be unmoved by that?" He leaves the question in the air, looks up quickly again and then back down at the table's surface. His expression remains implacable. "I'd have been looking to see if he's behind me and was going to jump on me," he explains. He would have not listened to the questions. He might have said inappropriate things or regaled me with useless information he found fascinating.

"I would have failed this exchange," he says flatly with no trace of humour. "I can see there's no threat from either of you. But because [before]I couldn't deduce that, I would always be wary like a feral dog. It's like being a sheep in a pack of wolves."

Mr. Robison, now 53, is like a guide who gives tours of another planet - in this case, one whose inhabitants are different neurologically. This tall man, dressed in a checkered, preppy shirt and conservative pants, has Asperger's syndrome, a neurobiological disorder on the autism spectrum that often creates a combination of remarkable proficiencies along with disabilities.

His new book, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, reads like a helpful handbook for anyone who wants to know how to fit in with "nypicals" - his less-clinical contraction of the word "neurotypicals," meaning people with ordinary brain wiring.

Aspergians typically cannot look others in the eye. They cannot read social situations well and often have difficulty bonding emotionally with others. Many develop esoteric obsessions. Mr. Robison's youthful claim to fame was for designing illuminated, fire-breathing and rocket-launching guitars for the glam-rock band KISS. Now, he runs one of the largest independent specialty car shops in the United States, where he restores and repairs Land Rovers, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys.

But his youth was painful. His father, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts, was an alcoholic who died in 2005. His mother suffered from mental illness. His younger brother Chris, who changed his name to Augusten Burroughs when he was 18, wrote the memoir Running With Scissors about his horrific childhood.

"My brother's portrait of our parents is quite a bit harsher than my own. But no matter which story, I suppose we didn't have the best of upbringings," Mr. Robison says without any indication of irony.

He dropped out of high school in Grade 10. "I had the language skill of a college professor and I had the social skills of a three-year-old," he explains. "People think you're just a bad kid. You grow up feeling defective because you're not like everyone else."

He was bullied, and as a teenager struggled to find a girlfriend. In his book, he describes feeling convinced that he'd grow up to be a criminal because everyone who didn't understand his condition only saw an anti-social misfit.

That all changed the day a client who was a therapist walked into the car shop and gave him a book on Asperger's. Mr. Robison was 39.

"I was shocked at first, but it was a revelation to read how people are different from other people, and see that was me. I felt a great sense of relief."

He wrote his first book, Look Me in the Eye, with the encouragement of his brother in 2007.

That Mr. Robison was able to understand his deficiencies and train himself to overcome them without medication is the hope he wants to give others.

In his new book, he gives practical advice for Aspergians, their parents and teachers to help them function more easily in the world.

"I think you can teach most anyone basic social behaviour. Being autistic or Aspergian does not mean that you can hit the people next to you or throw things or knock chairs over. The fact is that if you tolerate that kind of behaviour, that person is going to feel he can do just that because you allowed it in school."

But his transformation - what he calls "my emergence from disability" - has brought new hardships. His second marriage recently ended in divorce.

"Everything is changed for me now. Now, I can figure that stuff out for myself, and now I'm out in the world and I want to be friends with people, and she doesn't want to do those things. So we've grown apart and it's a sad thing."

Despite his success, low self-esteem plagues him still.

"I recognize now that the work I do as an advocate for people who are different is widely praised. I can read a good review. I can hear things people say about me ... I understand that's a good thing. It's better for you to be praising me rather than if I'm upsetting you. But your words don't change my internal state."

His lack of emotional animation is common for an Aspergian - something he helpfully points out. He folds his hands on the table, pleased, one imagines, with his successful interview, even though he doesn't show it. Or feel it, presumably. Asked what he would like in life, he answers methodically: "I want to be able to support myself and feel I have a combination of emotional and financial security that has eluded me."

He looks up briefly, without smiling, and then back down at his large, clean hands with tidy fingernails.

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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