John Elder Robison's just-paperbacked memoir, Look Me in the Eye, is a hilarious and moving account of life with Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism marked by, among other things, a woeful lack of social skills. "Aspies" are better known for their obsessive expertise in peculiar interests than for their tact, easy banter, or stylish grace.
Robison's story, however, demonstrates that Asperger's idiosyncrasies can be developed into astonishing gifts. Having invented Gene Simmons' signature flaming guitar and engineered some of the world's first videogames, Robison then opened a high-end auto shop (think Rolls-Royces and Bentleys) in Massachusetts, where he spoke with me over the phone about Asperger's.
MERCURY: Part of having Asperger's involves a difficulty in answering questions. Do interviews like this pose problems for you?
ROBISON: No. But if I were sitting next to you in person and talking for a long time, there would be a lot of things, like gestures and expressions, that I wouldn't catch. On the phone, however, the only thing I am expected to respond to are your words—there's no nonverbal communication for me to miss.
Describe how you've learned to interact with people better as an adult: You figure out how people generally expect other people to behave, and then imitate that behavior?
"Imitate" is not the right word. Certain events that create emotional events in you don't elicit a response from me. But I gradually learned why people like you have those responses. So if a bus full of strangers goes off a cliff in Peru, I wouldn't feel any distress. But if you feel distressed about it, I am able sympathize with that.
That was something you consciously developed. Was there a turning point that led you to cultivate your social skills?
The change came when my son was born. Suddenly, I had to focus all my mental powers on what this little, nonverbal person was trying to tell me. That was the point at which my life became people-oriented.