William & Mary

Memoirist speaks on autism

John Elder Robison, a best selling memoirist and autism activist, says in order to give children with autism a fair shot at a decent education, schools must first change their approach to dealing with autistic students.

“We so often are not unable to learn. We are unable to learn in the way that schools are presently committed to teaching,” Robison, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, said Sunday afternoon.

Robison was speaking at an event sponsored by the Autism Society Central Virginia at River Road United Methodist Church. He told personal stories and discussed “the need to raise awareness about different thinking” and The Neurodiversity Initiative at the College of William and Mary where he is scholar in residence.

Neurodiversity, according to the school’s website, is “acknowledging and appreciating the wide range of human neurologies, including Autism and ADHD, for example, while also acknowledging and appreciating the challenges of brain difference.”

Robison, the author of “Look Me In the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s” and two other books, dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. He went on to design special effects guitars for the rock band KISS in the late 1970s and then became an engineer with a major toy and game company, according to his biography.

Despite his success, Robison always doubted himself and never got past the stigma caused by the abuse heaped on him for being different. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in his 40s.

“The fact is, to be called an idiot all your life is not a good thing,” he said. “You think that, as articulate as I seem now, I wouldn’t be hurt by that. But the sting of being ‘a retard’ when I was 5 years old is still with me today.”

Robison believes one way for children with autism today to avoid a similar fate is to put them in a position to succeed.

He said people with autism can’t learn through abstractions, they need to be taught by doing and by example. Forcing them to adhere to the current approach, he said, only leads to frustration and failure.

The inability or unwillingness to change has come at a “terrible cost for people like me who are different. And for my son. And for other autistic people.”

“For thousands of years, that’s how you learned to do something. Whether it was being a preacher, being a doctor, being a carpenter, being a blacksmith. You learned it at the side of an older master,” Robison said.

“And colleges, as colleges were envisioned in the Middle Ages, provided a way for a master to do that for five or six students. It’s only relatively recently, in the 20th century, that colleges got the idea that they could not do it not for five or six, but for 50 or 60, or 200 or 300, in a lecture hall. And then they could charge the student $800 to attend that course.”