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Of Mind and Machine

John Robison Puts Aside the Wrench to Write His Story of Life with Asperger’s
John Robinson and Derek Cyboron

Author and self-described ‘machine aficionado’ John Robison (at right) Master Auto Technician Derek Cyboron at Robison Service.

In the early 1970s, John Robison found a blue Porsche missing its engine hidden in the woods of Amherst near his childhood home, and, after a quick look around to make sure he was alone, slid into the driver’s seat.

That marked the start of a lifelong obsession, and the root of a successful business — Robison Service, a European and exotic auto sales and service outfit tucked into a corner on Page Boulevard in Springfield.

Through that venture, Robison was able to put many of his self-confessed quirks, including the ability to relate better to machines than people, to good use. While some clients may have noticed Robison’s tendency to avoid idle chit-chat and direct eye contact, it was often chalked up to nothing more than a businessman with a demanding schedule, or maybe one with a touch of social ineptitude.

This year, however, Robison’s loyal client base, along with thousands of others, got a glimpse into what’s going on behind his wire-rimmed glasses. The explanation begins on the cover of his first book, a memoir titled Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s.

Robison was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a close cousin to autism, in 1996 — well into his adulthood. The syndrome is characterized by difficulty interacting with others, impaired nonverbal communication (a lack of facial expressions and an awkward gait are two examples), and focused, repetitive interests in specific areas — in Robison’s case, it’s on machines, including cars, trains, cameras, and sound equipment.

Today, it’s a syndrome that is most often identified during childhood, and one that is receiving more attention than ever before. Robison’s late realization that he was an Aspergian — his own term — led him to pen Look Me in the Eye in 2006, and it was published by the Crown Publishing Group, an affiliate of Random House, in January, 2007 with a foreword by his younger brother, author Augusten Burroughs. The story of the abandoned Porsche also appears, in an account so detailed, it’s as though it happened yesterday.

Show Us Everything You’ve Got

This year could return a paragraph or two to the new author, as well. Look Me in The Eye was placed on the New York Times Bestseller List five months after its publication, and has also garnered a slew of other accolades, among them inclusion on Amazon.com’s 100 Best Books of 2007, a People magazine Critic’s Choice, and Elle magazine’s Reader’s Prize.

It’s also the latest chapter in a decidedly colorful life. Despite his condition, and sometimes because of the advantages it provided, Robison’s history includes a gig in the 1970s traveling with and creating special-effects guitars for KISS. Later, he worked as an engineer for a major toy company, and after that, parlayed his love and proficiency for servicing high-end cars into one of the busiest repair, restoration, and customization outfits in the Northeast.

Twenty years later, Robison retains that low level of animation that is often associated with Asperger’s Syndrome, but it’s paired with a biting wit and the knowledge that, yes, he’s done some amazing things with his years.

“Who woulda thought,” he deadpans.

But he says that what he finds more notable than how his memoir sets him apart are the ways in which his story parallels those of other adults, many children, and plenty of Aspergians.

“It’s not a story of what you can’t ever be,” he said. “It’s not like I walked on the moon. Having a dream to fix nice cars is real, and attainable.

“What I did is stuff that millions of ordinary people can do,” he added. “There are kids being raised right now in Western Mass. who can go on to tour with bands or write books. That accessibility, I think, makes it more inspiring.”

It seems plenty of other people agree with that assessment.

Look Me in the Eye is currently in its ninth printing in the U.S., and its fifth in Australia. Robison said the book will be on sale in the U.K. in a matter of weeks, and is being translated into a number of languages for continued sale around the world, including Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.

There are two audio versions of the book, one read by Robison and recorded locally at Armadillo Audio in Pelham, and the book is also being incorporated into U.S. high school curricula as part of a new, national focus on teaching diversity. On the college level, a teaching guide has been developed by Dr. Kathy Dyers, an autism and speech pathology professor at UMass Amherst and Elms College.

As an outgrowth of that success, Robison has taken to public speaking, discussing the book and his experiences in various locales across the country. At times, he’s working in collaboration with New York City-based documentarian Jennifer Venditti, introducing screenings of her film Billy the Kid, which follows a 15-year-old Aspergian and has received awards this year at the L.A., Edinburgh, and Melbourne film festivals, among other accolades.

Locally, Robison is also speaking in schools and at colleges, and is working with Elms College to assist in the development of a graduate program in understanding Asperger’s and autism for teachers.

“That’s a big deal for me, because this is a failing of the education system,” he said. “It’s important to me to help provide training for teachers, especially in our area.”

Shifting Gears

Indeed, Robison is a hometown boy. Look Me in the Eye details a number of people, places, and events that are familiar to Western Mass. residents, and while his success has taken him to several new destinations (that travel will expand and continue in 2008, when his memoir is introduced in Europe), he always returns to the roots he’s firmly planted locally, including those at his shop in Springfield.

“My business serves a continuing need, so I’ll continue doing that and continue writing,” he said, noting that the publicity afforded him by his memoir has also benefited Robison Service, which is now drawing clients from an even wider radius. “It’s amazing to me, as a guy in the car biz, to see how things have taken off in such a big way. I’ve worked for 20 years in the auto world, and in a matter of weeks, the name recognition from the book surpassed 20 years of work.”

He added that while there are no plans to abandon his first love, his book’s success has also opened up doors through which he’s looking for new and different opportunities more than ever before.

“Cars have always been important to me,” he said. “I love this machinery, but when someone says my book is a window into their husband’s mind, or their child’s, I have to see that it’s significantly more important than putting a new water pump into a Mercedes.”

Robison said that when he set out to write Look Me in the Eye, he had certain notions about how it would be perceived: as an entertaining account of an unusual life. But as it turned out, the book was received by a much greater audience, and in a much different way, than he suspected.

“It has turned out that the book speaks to a larger percentage of the population than I ever imagined,” he said. “I didn’t realize that Asperger’s and autism were so pervasive, but the CDC says they affect one in 80 boys and one in 300 girls. That means everybody knows someone.

“I was very surprised by the response I got, and also surprised because I thought I had written a book about how different I was,” he continued. “But even people without Asperger’s have written to me to say that in parts, they see themselves.”

A Space Reserved

That’s because, Robison says, that pressing need to fit in is a feeling everyone has at one time or another, and in the case of Aspergians, this feeling is often magnified and ongoing.

“There are many things that I do that seem eccentric and that some people find offensive,” he said. “I still don’t look at people. But, I have found a niche where my handicaps are advantages. Having a compulsion to know everything there is to know about Rolls Royces and Land Rovers is ideal in my profession –– whereas, it would be irritating if I worked in a record store.”

Finding one’s place is a pervasive theme in Look Me in the Eye, Robison said, which also resonates with many readers of all types.

“Sometimes without my own knowledge, I have turned my Aspergian traits into benefits,” he said, noting that some Aspergian tendencies are more accepted in the auto service field than in most.

Robison has, for example, a tendency to be very truthful and direct with his customers.

“If I worked in a grocery store and a customer came through my line and I said, ‘hey, looks like you’ve put on some weight,’” he offered, “I wouldn’t have a job very much longer.

“But I’m talking about the reality of what’s wrong with people’s cars,” he said. “They may not like to hear it at first, but it’s something they can accept.”

Robison’s late diagnosis was also a boon in other ways, he said. While he often felt like the odd man out, he also spent many years learning how to adapt to more conventional society — a task all Aspergians must eventually tackle.

“Often, a diagnosis is an excuse,” he explained. “People have to recognize that there are conditions for which society makes no accommodation; you need to teach yourself how to deal with the public. Society will not adapt to you –– and that goes for everyone. I think I’m more keenly aware of that fact than a lot of young people.

“But at the same time, I grew up thinking many of the things that were said about me, that I was a sociopath or ‘no good,’ were true.”

The Porsche Swing

In between book signings and appearances, Robison said he’s working on his second book, a how-to of sorts that will delve further into the ways he’s “succeeded as a misfit,” as he puts it, and is mulling plans for a third tome.

He’s also continuing to reap the benefits of Look Me in the Eye’s popularity, and among his favorite byproducts are the letters he receives daily from readers, which he said are burying those memories of being called ‘no good’ under a pile of ‘thank yous.’

One letter in particular came by certified, overnight mail from the general counsel at Porsche Cars. Sure he’d committed some sort of copyright or trademark infringement, Robison tore open the envelope and was surprised yet again to read a grateful, personal note.

“He just wanted to say he loved the book and the mentions of Porsche cars,” said Robison. “And, he said Porsche is home to a lot of Aspergians.”

With that, Robison let out a short but jubilant belly laugh.

For him, the more he blends in, the more comfortable he feels.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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