John Elder Robison has designed signature special effects guitars for KISS and helped build Pink Floyd’s sound equipment. He is on the panels for both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. He is a published author of two books — one a New York Times bestseller — with two more on the way.
And he has Asperger’s syndrome.
It’s the bestseller that gives it away: “Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s,” a memoir that focuses on the heartwarming, upsetting and hilariously bizarre moments of life on the autistic spectrum. Last Thursday, Robison spoke at Boswell Books about his trials, tribulations and successes.
Asperger’s was not a diagnosable disease when Robison was a child, and while it was painful enough being regarded as “stupid” and “strange” by teachers, Robison’s home life was difficult as well.
The public got an early glimpse into Robison’s life when his brother, Augusten Burroughs, wrote “Running With Scissors,” the bestselling memoir about his own strange childhood. Robison’s alcoholic father and schizophrenic mother made life grueling, especially when Asperger’s prevented him from connecting with other children. Robison was bullied as a young child and often took matters into his own hands.
“I solved my bullying problem with one word: pliers,” Robison joked.
After many failed attempts at friendships, Robison isolated himself away from the world and became engulfed in his passion for machinery. However, he found high school classes to be unsatisfying and boring, eventually dropping out of school as a sophomore.
“My loneliness gave me free time to concentrate on electronics,” Robison said.
Robison channeled his intelligence into electronics and music. He studied the mechanics of electric circuits and soon became involved in the music scene. He created illuminated, pyrotechnic guitars for KISS. He even toured with the band and worked backstage.
After a year on the road, Robison wanted to get a job in the corporate realm. His ability to concentrate deeply and take in information at a seemingly impossible rate enabled him to teach himself the two to three years worth of knowledge about digital engineering necessary in just two weeks.
He worked at Milton Bradley, although he had to fabricate his education in order to get the position. He eventually quit his job after worrying he would be caught in his lie.
“I felt like a fraud. I was convinced that I was a failure,” Robison said.
A friend gave Robison a book about Asperger’s, and he was soon officially diagnosed. He wrote “Look Me in the Eye” and Asperger’s advice book “Be Different,” and became heavily invested in autism research.
Today, Robison now works with the nonprofit organization Autism Speaks, has been featured on a television shows about neurology, and has worked with therapists to help adults with Asperger’s learn job skills and team building.
“The trait that hurt me so much ended up being a good thing,” Robison said. “Autism robbed me of my ability to make friends but set me free as an adult.”
Robison also has a son with Asperger’s and is writing another comedic memoir on raising an autistic son from the perspective of an autistic person. He advocates for parents of special needs children because he wants to show these families that there is hope.
“Special needs books can be cripplingly depressing. These books are full of heroic mommies and traumatized children,” Robison said. “There needs to be a happy book about special needs.”
Carole Burns, director of the Wakerly Technology Training Center in Johnston Hall, attended Robison’s presentation. Burns has a personal connection to Robison’s story. She has a 20-year-old son with Asperger’s.
“This is the first (autism) book I have read that I felt like (my son) could have a normal life,” Burns said.
Burns wanted to find social opportunities for her son. She could not find any social clubs in Wisconsin for Aspergians, so she created a group online. Her club, Aspergers Empowerment, meets once a month at Marquette.
“Adults with Asperger’s can get together with likeminded individuals and not feel ostracized,” Burns said.
Autism advocacy and research has been a large component of Burns’ life. She is working to obtain a doctorate in communications, with a thesis on how social media can help people with Asperger’s. She is also working on the equal access board with the Office of Disability Services. She wants to create more opportunities for people with Asperger’s to obtain job skills, go to college and acclimate to a college lifestyle.
Active Minds, Marquette’s mental health awareness group, is currently hosting its annual Mental Health Awareness week, and Monday was based on Asperger’s syndrome awareness. The club watched an episode of “Community” and talked about Danny Pudi’s character, Abed, who has Asperger’s and attends college.
Shannon Rohn, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, organized the event. She advocates for autism research for her brother who has Asperger’s.
“A lot of people and families are affected by (Asperger’s),” Rohn said. “You do not always know how many people it affects and what they’re going through.”