The first annual
JOHN ELDER ROBISON ROUNDTABLE
A Special Event for People Dealing with Issues Related to Special Needs
Sat, 9/16, 2:30 PM
BCA Center, Roth Gallery
Hello. I was born in Athens, Georgia in the hot summer of 1957. My father was preaching in Ila-pronounced EYE-LA-Georgia, that summer. Both my parents were in college when I was born. We moved every few years while my father worked his way through college until finally settling as a professor of Philosophy in Amherst, Massachusetts. Me as a kid.
I was always a problem child, often sad, a loner, unable to make friends. My parents sent me to a number of different schools, and I saw many different therapists, but none of them had the answers. Some of them had some pretty strange ideas, though! My brother Augusten Burroughs chronicled some of our family’s misadventures in therapy in his 2002 book, Running With Scissors.
The problem was, Asperger’s Syndrome had not yet been “discovered” as a diagnosis when I was a kid. My social disability was dismissed as laziness, or deliberate misbehavior. I dropped out of high school in the tenth grade.
Luckily, my Asperger’s gave me a rare insight into electronics. Using that knowledge, I joined a band, which led to a bigger band, which led to a bigger band… I ended up designing special effects guitars for KISS by the late 1970s. From there, I made the leap into a real job as an engineer with a major toy and game company. I moved up the corporate ladder for ten years, when I hit a wall.
By the late 1980s I had become a manager at a Boston electronics firm, but I was miserable. I had no idea how to fit into a corporate environment, and I felt sure my differences would mark me as a fraud, someone who should tossed in the street or worse. Finally, I had enough. I quit my job.
I began fixing Mercedes and Land Rover cars in my driveway. I never had to worry about fitting in with the world of machines. Soon, I was immersed in them. From that beginning, J E Robison Service grew into one of the most successful independent repair businesses in New England. We specialize in Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor car work. Our company is known nationwide for our restoration and customization work, especially on Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, and Bentley vehicles.
One day, a therapist with a lust for Land Rovers walked in the door at JE Robison Service, and we became friends. After studying me closely, he introduced me to Asperger’s Syndrome and the knowledge changed my life forever. It took some time, and a lot of hard work, but the knowledge of how and why I am different transformed my life.
Today, we know Asperger’s syndrome is one form of autism. The collection of differences are called the autism spectrum. Autism is at its heart a communication disorder or difference. Some autistic people have difficulty speaking, or understanding language. Asperger people tend to be blind to the unspoken cues of other people.
My memoir of growing up different was published in 2007. Look Me in the Eye was an instant bestseller which launched me on yet another career. Today it’s sold in over 20 editions in 70+ countries worldwide. My second book, Be Different, is now following in its footsteps. Along with Raising Cubby.
I’ve found a new calling as a speaker and advocate for people with Asperger’s and other forms of autism. I take part in speaking engagements and workshops across the country.
The more I learned about autism and Asperger’s, the more I realized how diverse the autism spectrum really is. Science has identified a number of traits that tie us all together, yet on the surface we could not possibly look more different. There is no such thing as a “typical autistic person.” Some describe us as gifted while others talk about disability. For every autistic person who has a family and a job, several others struggle but fail to attain those goals.
Seeing that, I began to understand the pressing need to develop therapies and services to help autistic people at all levels succeed in today’s world. At the same time, I realized the wider world needs us; and they need help understanding how to accommodate us and help us fit in.
In the past few years, I have become active on boards and committees of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, Autism Speaks and a number of universities and colleges. I’m interested in selecting the most promising research that will improve the quality of life for people at all points on the autism spectrum and I’m interested in legal, ethical and social issues relating to autism and advocacy.
In 2012, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius named me to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee which develops-among other things-the Strategic Plan for autism research that guides NIH, CDC and many private researchers. I’m continuing my academic work as well. In 2013, I began a collaboration with researchers and faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
With all that, I’m a pretty busy fellow. My newest book, Switched On, is a bestseller as well. Meanwhile, I’m busy with my car business, teaching, speaking and advocacy work as well. There’s a lot going on! But I’d love to talk with you about what I’ve learned. It may prove helpful to you in dealing with the challenges you’re facing. I look forward to seeing you at the 2017 Burlington Book Festival. This will be my fifth visit and I always enjoy meeting people and taking part in this wonderful event. I hope you’ll stop in on Saturday, September 16 at 2:30 in The BCA Center on Church Street. There is no charge for admission.