Does “Normal” Exist? (John Elder Robison’s Book “Be Different”)

Synopsis of selected chapters from “Be Different”:

Part 1: “Rituals, Manners and Quirks”

Part 2: “Emotions”

I will blog about parts 3, 4 and 5 in the near future!

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate reading clinical reports about Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The only things they really focus on are the symptoms and treating methods. I urge you to take a look at this article on Web It is a perfect example of something that absolutely drives me crazy. These reports only show a list of symptoms in childhood, adolescence and adult hood. I have tried my hardest to explain the emotions I have experienced in my life through the writing of my blogs. This brings me to another reason I can’t stand articles like this. It mainly focuses on the “cant’s” of Asperger’s. I am the proud owner of John Elder Robison’s new book “Be Different”. There have been people in the Asperger’s community who have given his first effort “Look Me In The Eye” negative reviews. It is hard to describe experiences throughout a person’s life, then explain how they overcame them in just one book. This weeks blog is going to describe how I can relate to my favorite chapters of this book.

John would probably agree with my statement that we have come along way when it comes to understanding Asperger’s. However, we still have much farther to go. The chapter “Asperger’s and Me” mentioned his son Jack Robison (nicknamed “Cubby), who is now twenty-one years old. He was officially diagnosed when he was sixteen. John was not officially diagnosed until twenty-four years later. A quote from the chapter reads “I look at him today, and see how much he’s benefited from understanding how and why his brain is different from other folks. In many ways, he’s the young man I could have been if only I had known what I had.”

Social skills groups did not work for me, because they focused on “fixing” my weaknesses instead of building on them using my strengths. They seemed to think threatening and scaring tactics would magically cause me to become “reborn” into a “socialite who had lots of friends”. My last blog was about teachers, counselors and parents who don’t “practice what they preach.” It showed how they all push students to learn more about “social skills”, while they behave in a way that shows a lack of social skills. The teacher at Freeport who tried to convince me into believing there was a fee to attend Lenape was a prime example. Remember the situation where they purposely put me on the spot in front of everybody? I liked the chapter Finding Your Path to “Fitting In” because there was one thing that showed me why I didn’t function in the Wesley Wonder Kids “social skills” group. A quote from the chapter read “competence excuses strange behavior. That’s a very important point for those of us on the spectrum, because our special interests can make us competent in whatever we find fascinating”. Wesley Wonder Kids only focused on “fixing” my quirks, not building on my strengths to improve my social skills.

With that in mind, I want to draw your attention to a story about Florida mother Melissa Barton and teacher Wendy Portillo. She is a kindergarten teacher at Port Saint Lucie elementary school. Her son’s teacher allowed her students to vote him out of class. Alex, was five years old when his teacher allegedly asked each student stand up and say something they didn’t like about him. They commented “Alex is disgusting”, “Alex is annoying”, “Alex sits under the table”, “Alex spins in circles” and “Alex eats his crayons”. After each student spoke, she asked him. Fourteen classmates voted him out of the classroom and two voted to let him stay in the class. In this CBS interview with Melissa, she talked about  Alex’s only friend in his kindergarten class. Mrs. Portillo asked the little boy if Alex should be allowed to stay in the class. This happened not once, but twice! The first time he said Alex should be allowed to stay, but Mrs. Portillo sternly said his name. The boy eventually decided to vote him out of the class to prevent the teacher from potentially being punished for disagreeing with him.

Wendy Portillo’s punishment was originally a year suspension without pay and loss of tenure. However, the West Palm Beach school board decided to change that punishment and give her tenure back. In September 2010, she behaved discriminatory to another student with a disability. This teacher is now working at Allapattah Flats in She and two other West Palm Beach teachers were discriminative to a partially deaf girl. The two teachers were supposed to wear microphones so the female student could hear them, but the female student claimed they would “sometimes would not wear them”. According to this news article, the mother filed a complaint with the department of education. There was a claim in the report that said “that one teacher never wore the microphone and screamed and yelled at the student to pay closer attention.” The report also stated another teacher wore the microphone but did not turn it on and “laughed sarcastically in the face of the student”. When Alex Barton’s mother heard about this incident she commented “I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’ve fought very hard to correct this district and this teacher, and here we are again!”

Alex’s mother was very lucky the school board took any action about this teacher’s behavior, however Mrs. Portillo should not have received her tenure back. Discrimination against people is something that we unfortunately can’t erase, but society has a long way to go when it comes to enforcing the laws regarding it. However, we still have a long way to go. During John’s upbringing, anybody who exhibited these characteristics was perceived as “bad”, “ignorant”, “selfish” and “self-absorbed”, just to name a few. I am sure his mother was also very worried about his self-esteem after this unfortunate incident.

Let’s take a look at the chapter “A Reason To Care. John’s mother suffered from Bipolar disorder and his father was a raging alcoholic. As a result, he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. A quote from the chapter read “I loved computers and electronics, so I naturally imagined myself becoming an engineer. Yet, even with that dream secured, it was difficult for me to see a clear path from high school through college to professional engineerhood in my head. There were just too many problems. My home life was awful, with a drunken father and a mentally ill mother. And I didn’t seem to focus on what my teachers wanted.” Nobody was really there to motivate him and push him in the right direction. His behavior caused resulted in frequent trips to the principal’s office. A school like Lenape Tech sounds like something John really could have benefited from. I hated most of my classes, and my grades started to plummet because of my many issues with self-esteem. I was so bitter about the fact that nobody liked me and truly appreciated me for who I was. Just like John I felt “I wasn’t getting a thing out of class. No one wanted me there. There was no good reason to be in school”. 

My freshman and sophomore years at Freeport were dreadful because I simply because I had to be there for about 6 hours every day. The teachers were not motivated to fit my needs, and they didn’t do a very good job motivating me because none of my classes really interested me. Most public high schools hire teachers for the sole purpose of filling employment vacancies. They don’t consider matters like their ability to teach the material in a way the students will understand. I urge you to search for your school on the website Rate My Teachers. Reasons like what I just described are why this website has sparked such a controversy. Every school out there has at least one teacher who seems to think that giving assignment after assignment out of a  textbook will “light the spark” and help them truly understand the material and want to learn more about it. The thing that annoys me about teachers who give nothing but book work is the fact they never explain any of the terms or (if you are in a class that involves math) formulas in the chapter you they assign you. It is also really no use to ask the teacher for help, because they just tell you how to do the steps instead of showing the steps in a way the average student can grasp it. A “bad” teacher would say “Derek, I’ve told you the steps countless times. Why aren’t you paying attention?” A “good” teacher would say “Derek, let me explain the steps in another way. You don’t seem to be getting it.” The simple fact about teaching is they have to get used to the fact that every student has a different learning style.

A visual learner needs to be taught how to take notes, remember important ideas and they need to have notes and a visual to look at and help them remember information that is going to be on a test. Visual learners would most likely excel in classes like geometry and trigonometry. Algebra can be very challenging for these learners because it is a very abstract

A kinesthetic (hands on)  learner should be allowed to make models of the topic they are learning about. Field trips are a great way to show real world applications of the topic you are covering. They should have the opportunity to use tools and put their skills to the test.

An auditory learner may have difficulty reading passages in a textbook or handouts and they may take longer to get the work completed. They often have high confidence to contribute to class discussions and they are good with words and language. Both oral and written instruction are essential.  

The problem with many teachers is they are unwilling to adapt to the many different learning styles of each student. I am mostly a visual learner, but the hands on an auditory approach towards learning can be helpful for me. It is also important to remember that not every single Aspergian learns the same way. I am a person who needs specific instruction when it comes to performing a task.

Let’s skip forward to the chapter “(Not) Reading People”. Awareness of things like facial expressions and tone of voice can be very difficult for people like me. The chapter opened with John describing how his grandma Richter would make faces at him when he was a toddler. Instead of smiling and laughing at his grandmother, he would just stare. He had absolutely no idea what to make of her action. The circus clown faces coming from his grandmother caused him to wonder if they were supposed to be “funny” or “dangerous.” This agrivated her, so she asked “Why aren’t you smiling at me? You are just a mean little boy.” She finally had enough and plopped John onto the ground. His initial reaction “I was not able to fully grasp what had just happened, but I got the message that she didn’t like me very much.” The therapist I described in many of my former posts (especially “You Need To Laugh More”) seemed to think that pushing me would magically cure me of this problem. He took a similar approach to how Elaine Hall handled her son Neal. He would mimic my facial expressions, film them with my video camera and laugh at them in the process. After we watched the video tapes, he would sit there and tell me how I needed to fix them “immediately”. I am surprised I “kept my cool” and didn’t punch him after I encountered that whole experience. That was an approach that caused me to put even more of a wall. I most certainly didn’t think it was funny, so I refused to open up to him. The fact is, I will not open up to somebody who tries to push me to the limit. To me, it seemed like he was trying to blame me being me for the fact that I had self esteem issues and was bullied a lot. I was emotionally drained by the end of every session with him. I am gradually improving on my ability to recognize facial expressions in people, but never again will I let anybody shove them down my throat! 

If grown-ups are aware, they can do a whole lot to help by explaining what the kids are missing.” 

John Elder Robison

Friendships in high school have been very difficult for me. This was because of my difficulty with facial expressions. The chapter “Making and Keeping Friends” illustrated how his views of friendships have changed. Social skills groups like Wesley Wonder Kids weren’t very helpful when it came to making friendships. The group members were lost in their own worlds and I was lost in mine. I could not figure out how to interact with them because I was not into the same things they were. I met my good friend Aaron from the Computing Workshop program, and we automatically got along because he was a very laid back guy who wasn’t interested in normalizing me. The group members from Wesley Wonder Kids seemed to be lost in their own world of video games, cartoons, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon. When they would talk about their interests, the staff members would put me on the spot and make me ask questions about it. I had no idea what to ask them because I am not interested in any of those things. I was just to stressed about the whole social pressure of high school that I didn’t really want friends. Mom would try to encourage me to find out more about the things they were interested in, but I chose not to because I feared I would get even more lost into my world. Reading this chapter described how I felt at just about any social event with people close to my age. There was another thing about friendships that really frustrated me during junior high and high school. The following is another quote from this chapter “Like anyone, it cuts me when a friend I care about turns on me, but if someone I just met fades from the scene, I’ve learned not to be troubled.” I know now that friends who come and go are not true friends. I’ve come to realize that it is their problem if they don’t want to truly get to know me. Very much like John, I thought of friendships as “all or nothing”. People have different groups of friends and not every category of friends share their deepest darkest secrets.

There is one more chapter that I want to talk about in part 2. “Keeping Cool In A Crisis” can be very difficult for many people. People often joke about tragedies like car accidents and school shootings because they don’t realize the seriousness of the situation until it actually happens to them or somebody they care about. John was involved in a serious car accident, but he and the passenger were not injured. The following is a quote that described the situation “Everything happened in slow motion, though the crash played out in a fraction of a second in real-time. Jim saw a rainbow as the other car’s window glass exploded in our headlights. I remember a tremendous jolt, and struggling to twist my wrecked steering wheel as our car slid to a stop. When we stopped moving we both looked back and forth for a moment, and wiggled our arms and legs to ascertain that we were still alive and intact.”  The driver of the other vehicle was killed on impact. Head on collisions are among of the most serious types of car accidents because they involve more than one vehicle. I honestly don’t know how I would react if I encountered a crisis situation because I have never experienced it before. Instead of screaming and panicking, he did his best to rescue the passenger trapped inside the other vehicle. He took the logical approach and solved the problem while helping somebody who was in danger. Fire, severe weather and lockdown drills in school are necessary in schools because they are intended to prepare for the unthinkable. Before I leave you for today, I urge you to look at this video. It contains rare evidence that was found from the shooting at Columbine High School in April 1999. The evidence was put there to help people reconnect with what happened that day.

I hope you enjoyed reading my perceptions of John Elder Robison’s book.

I will review parts 3, 4 and 5 next week!

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“Look Me In The Eye” by John Elder Robison

Recently my parents bought me the book “Look Me in The Eye” by John Elder Robison. I found an audio CD of the book that was read by the author for sale on I find it easier to listen to the author read the book then just sit there and read it. Depending on the material we’re learning about, I learn it easier by listening. For the most part, I consider myself an auditory learner. The book talked about his life with Asperger’s Syndrome, and how it affected his social performance throughout his life. He lived a very tough childhood, his father was an abusive alcoholic and from what I remember his mother suffered from severe depression. Because of this, his parents never gave him support about his social difficulties. Because of these issues, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. John Elder started his successful career when he started working with the rock band KISS. There, he designed exploding, fire-shooting special effect guitars for Ace Freshley.

After years of working with KISS, he was employed at a company that designs electronic games. His social difficulties prevented him from advancing in the job, as a result he quit his job. From there, he started his hobby of working with cars. He worked on cars when he was in high school, and he wanted to start it again. He wanted to make money doing the thing he loved, but he wasn’t sure how. Then came J.E Robison service. His business repairs and customizes cars, and it became one of the most successful independent repair shops in New England. He discovered he had Asperger’s Syndrome from a therapist who came to his repair business. He showed him the book “Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals”. When he read the book, he said the book perfectly described him.

I am glad I found out about Asperger’s Syndrome when I was young. I was in about second or third grade when I found out about it. If John Elder found out about it long before he did, things would have been much different for him. Because of his father’s abusive drunkenness and his mothers severe depression, he did not get any help from his disorder. Professionals often misdiagnosed him for disorders like schizophrenia. I am getting very sick of people gossiping about me and giving me labels such as “anti-social”, “psychopath”, “retard”, “loser” or “freak”. I am not any of those things, I want social interaction with people and I want to fit. I’ve dealt with pushy, overly involved therapists and counselors who thought they understood my diagnosis and how it affected me. They obviously didn’t! I am perfectly capable of making friends with the people I want to be friends with, and if they don’t want to be friends with me it is their loss. I am willing to be friends with anybody who accepts me for the kind of guy that I am and who won’t be judgmental and give me stereotypes. I am not going to be upset about not having twenty “casual friends” like most teenagers I know. I am going to try to find one close friend who will respect me and stand up for me. I don’t really have friends that will let me be myself, and I am real upset about that. Kids my age believe the labels the fools give me. Because of that, I don’t have that many friends in school. If I didn’t find out about my Asperger’s Syndrome when I did, I could have considered dropping out of high school like John Elder did.

I am thankful that I have people who support me and accept me for who I am. This book was very painful to read because of the things that John Elder had to experience. His father mistreated him by hitting and not just plain not believing in him. He is very lucky to have gotten where he is now. These days, you need to have education to get just about anywhere. I realize the importance of education, but the thing is we don’t have teachers that are certified to work with Autistic kids. A classic example of this is the story “Gerald Mcboing-Boing” by Dr Seuss. The story is about a young boy named Gerald Mcloy, instead of using real words he would make a “boing boing” noise. His parents called a doctor to try to find out what was wrong with him, but the doctor could not figure out what was wrong with him. His parents thought that sending him to school would teach him how to use words instead of making noises, but it didn’t go well. When he got home from school, his parents left him a note telling him that he was completely hopeless and that he would keep making noises for the rest of his life. Gerald did not realize that when he makes noises, nobody wanted to be around him. He then became very upset and ran away from home. Gerald’s “inappropriate noise” making eventually landed him a job at their local radio station. He got a job doing the thing that people love to do the most, which was make noises. When a child with Autism or Asperger’s demonstrates any kind of inappropriate behavior, teachers often get the impression that they are “ignorant and hopeless”. John Elder Robinson struggled in school because of his fathers alcoholism and his mother’s severe depression and, as you heard earlier he dropped out of high school because of the social shunning and his difficulties at home with his parents. He overcame that depression and he eventually became one of the most successful aspergians to ever live. This book is recommended for all people to read, especially parents and teachers. Hopefully after reading both the book and my review of it, you understand Asperger’s Syndrome more.