Autistic Genius

Being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life. People made fun of my stilted manner, my pedantic speech, and my detachment from other people.

I walked through the scenes of my life like an outside observer, stepping carefully over the rubble and staying out of trouble. There was very little happiness in my world. Luckily, I had a natural gift for understanding machines and making things work. But people were a complete mystery to me.

– Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Smoking Guitar John E. Robison Designed for KISS. Pinterest.

You may have brought John Elder Robison into your home in the 70s if you watched TV or played with an electronic toy. His was the brilliant mind behind the guitars that breathed fire and launched rockets and drove the KISS fans wild from the stage. The sound equipment he built for Pink Floyd’s sound company played before millions across North America. But he left the world of rock and roll thinking himself a fraud and failure, unable to see his value in the social fabric because he couldn’t read social cues. John didn’t know he was successful because he didn’t feel successful. So he moved into the corporate world, engineering electronic toys and games for Milton Bradley until he climbed the ladder where at the peak he found himself managing engineers, and social skills became more important than technical expertise. Although he remained troubled by people’s response to the differences that were evident in him, John didn’t know he was autistic for 40 years until he picked up Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood. Nor does he consider himself a genius, but Malcolm Gladwell will disagree because by the time John was 20 years old, he had spent well over 10,000 hours studying music and taking apart electronics, beginning with repair and eventually creating circuits of his own design. John made full use of the laser focus and prodigious capacity for knowledge that was characteristic of Aspergians alongside his commitment to hard work to carve for himself a fulfilling life. His first book, New York Times bestseller Look Me in the Eye, opens the door into the mind of autistic children and those who seem disconnected from the world. I was deeply touched by the testimony that takes us past the struggles of the autistic to the hopes of connection and belonging that embody the human spirit. Our celebrated guest, who has appeared on the Today Show and given countless interviews and talks throughout the country, has graciously taken the time to share some of his discoveries and triumphs with us.

Can you take us through the various points of your journey where you successfully applied your gifts in the face of obstacles?

With a drunk, violent father and a mother who was often manic and sometimes out-and-out crazy, my home life was chaotic and unpleasant. Teachers sometimes saw flashes of exceptionality in me, but that was overshadowed by the many deficiencies kids and adults loved to point out. With no support at school, I dropped out at 15 by which point my parents were in states of collapse, both of them having been committed to the state hospital numerous times.

There were no disability supports for kids back then, at least ones like me. I still managed to have a lot of fun as an emergent adult, playing music, riding my motorcycle, and tinkering with cars and machines. Musicians and car enthusiasts welcomed me because I could do things they valued. Knowing my social limitations, I realized I would never be the guy on stage playing the guitar or the driver racing a rally car to victory. But I could be the guy behind the scenes with the technical skills to help make those things happen. I also became good at fixing cars and between those things, I made enough money to get my own apartment.

I am really lucky to have the ability to fix and create things that others value. Repairing a car or a broken electronic device is a skill that is useful everywhere. Creating stories also has universal value. At first, I wrote reports and proposals for clients. Then I wrote articles in car magazines. After learning about my autism, I decided to write a book and then wrote three more. Now I am back to writing car articles and stories on neurodiversity while running a business that restores, sells, and services high-end cars.

My parents had their share of problems, but despite alcoholism and mental illness they were both successful teachers. I think they would be proud to see that I’ve followed in their footsteps. I enjoy learning and sharing my ideas as the neurodiversity scholar at William and Mary and the neurodiversity advisor for Landmark College. I get to speak on autism and neurodiversity at other colleges every year. As my father did as a professor of philosophy, I grapple with difficult ethical issues in various settings like government autism committees.

Creating pictures, also something I enjoy, too has helped me find success. I earned the down payment on the garage complex of my car company from concert and carnival photo royalties. Today I am proud to see hundreds of musicians and circus performers using my images, which have been widely published, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal to billboards along the highway.

What compelled you to reach for success over against your difficult upbringing and social disability?

Looking back at what I’ve achieved, I guess one thing is how important it was to me that I produce good work. The absence of security in my childhood also gave me a very strong drive to make it. I made myself successful as I learned how to minimize my disabilities to the point of acceptability and how to build up my gifts and find people like those musicians who could appreciate what I could do and whose minds were flexible enough to excuse what I couldn’t do.

I believe knowledge of autism at an earlier age would have changed the course of my life. Without the understanding of what made me different, I grew up thinking I was a second-rate human being. Today, with a large number of extremely successful clients in the auto restoration field, I look at myself and them and see how much social disability had held me back. At the same time, I see how far logic, reasoning power, and technical skill have brought me. These things gave me a strong desire to prove I was good and drove me to my various accomplishments.

You’ve cited studies that measured the internal physiological response of autistic people in the face of emotional prompts like watching someone get poked or hurt. Turns out autistic people sustain a stronger response of empathy than nonautistic folks for longer, at that. Could you talk about autistic people’s capacity to love?

Autistic people have the same capacity for love or any other emotion as anyone else. We just don’t always show our emotions in the expected ways, or to the expected degrees. And our emotional responses may not be the same as those of a person who is not autistic for a given triggering event.

How did you manage discouragement?

I just kept working. I failed at things, lost jobs, made and lost friends, but through it all I just kept going because I had no other choice. The weight of that mantle of sadness was very heavy for a long, long time. It’s much less so today. I have always wrestled with anxiety and depression.

Who inspired you in your journey?

In whatever field I worked there were always older engineers and technicians who seemed to be better at everything I could do. They challenged me to improve my skills. Looking back, I am not so sure they could actually do everything better than me, but being older they certainly possessed more wisdom and experience, and many had families and lives outside work, which I hoped to have one day (and eventually did).

For the longest time I internalized my failure in school and saw myself as just a high school dropout, an uneducated failure. I wish I had models who succeeded outside the mainstream but self-educated people are rare today, although they were quite common before the rise of “big education” in the 20th century.

I may look and act pretty strange at times, but deep down I just want to be loved and understood for who and what I am. I want to be accepted as part of society, not an outcast or outsider. I don’t want to be a genius or a freak or something on display. I wish for empathy and compassion from those around me, and I appreciate sincerity, clarity, and logicality in other people.

– Look Me in the Eye

50 thoughts on “Autistic Genius

    • I came to see from Look Me in the Eye how we keep boundaries from those who are different from us too readily. Get closer, and we’ll find there is a lot more to them, like how the man you know is really quite a softie inside.

    • We don’t have autism in the family, but I was deeply touched by his story of triumph and the deepest needs of the heart we all share that John takes us into. Look Me in the Eye is a worthwhile read for everyone. Thanks.

  1. Thanks for another interesting share Diana. I didn’t know about John or his work but will explore his books. I think many of us struggle with similar feelings and challenges. It’s inspiring that he was able to accept, compensate, and thrive.

    • A hard home life is burden enough. I wanted to share the inspiration he was to me in the many challenges he has surmounted. There is a purity to John’s writing too, a logic that exposes all the fakeness we’ve adopted by social convention. Enjoy.


  2. I’m an older guy with Asperger’s. When I was a kid it didn’t exist.

    “I may look and act pretty strange at times, but deep down I just want to be loved and understood for who and what I am. I want to be accepted as part of society, not an outcast or outsider.”

    That has been a lifelong challenge for me. But sometimes, to be a “freak” is the price you pay for being authentic. I am old enough now that social rejection isn’t the worst thing in the world. Hiding in a closet is.

    • Fred, there are many thousands of older autistic people out there. I see us everywhere I go. More and more workplaces are establishing neurodiversity programs which give a context to meet and talk. Colleges are doing the same. There is something to be said for the community of like people

    • If someone has a fundamentally different way of seeing the world than you, how could you possibly know? Scientific study and careful observation reveals differences, but shot of that . . . we are all unique but we instinctively act as if we are the same

    • It’s funny to read comments like yours because I never saw myself achieving anything other than staying alive healthy and independent

  3. What an incredibly powerful interview Diana and a rather inspiring individual I might add. John’s done so well in his life despite a difficult upbringing. And I love the humility and compassion that comes out in him through this interview. My son’s on the spectrum too.

    • Thanks for writing Miriam. You may be interested to know that I also have a memoir of parenting my own autistic son, called RAISING CUBBY. It is a totally unique parenting story that includes raids by the ATF, the truth about Santa, and many other things parents need to know. And the best part is that we know the ending . . . Cubby is 30 years old and a successful software engineer

      • Sounds like an intriguing read John. And how wonderful to hear how Cubby turned out. My 19yo son is programming and doing first year of Computer Science and thriving. We’re very proud of him.

  4. Thank you for the enlightening interview Diana. I think we fear the most what we don’t understand and the awareness you are helping to bring to the table is invaluable for those that need it. Makes you want to hug anyone going through this ordeal and hoping we can do better as humans to understand and help alleviate any suffering as we can, even if it is only by that understanding.
    Stay well!

  5. So many insights here. I valued reading it from the perspective of a grandmother, watching her very bright g.d navigate first year college in an Autism Initiative program. it is also the first year in which she has found friendship. The question is, will she be able to manage such “distraction” and maintain her scholarship. Online instruction mercifully continues, but how Covid-19 affects such students is yet to be known. Thank you for this piece.

    • Thank you for sharing about your granddaughter. I am very concerned for how education’s been disrupted, but homeschool solves a lot of it. It’s just difficult at the college level, for sure. She will be able to return to her friends when the quarantine lifts. =)

  6. That’s a great checklist of skills for kids to learn. It’s not always easy (especially dealing with failure) but it can help them prepare for that inevitable time when they’re on their own (and even right now when they’re still at home).

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