Re-Post: "Same Diff: A review of 'Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian' by John Elder Robison"
"Every person, Aspergian or not, has something unique to offer the world," gushes the cover flap of Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, the latest book by John Elder Robison and the follow-up to his best-selling memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's. The magnanimity of this sentiment belies the actual content of the book, which is not a testament to the importance of neurodiversity but a kind of how-to manual on normativity. The sub-subtitle reads "With Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families, and Teachers," but the book is clearly targeted primarily at people with Asperger syndrome, specifically young people. Robison supports his advice with numerous anecdotes, and frames his own experience as a kind of conversion narrative, a journey out of disability.
I once saw John Elder Robison speak, during my sophomore year at Wellesley College in the spring of 2009. At the time, I was aware that he had authored a successful memoir, Look Me in the Eye, though I had not read it. I confess that I still have not read the book that made Robison the poster child for Asperger syndrome. I'm not really one for memoirs on the whole. Perhaps, as an "Aspergian" myself, I simply lack the capacity for empathy necessary to enjoy them.
Like Robison, I have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. My experience, however, has been very different. This is not to say that it is impossible to find common ground, and as I sat listening to his lecture I was comforted and inspired by Robison's words. I had just begun the difficult process of obtaining a diagnosis. The man who stood there, in front of an audience that seemed to consist mostly of anxious parents and family members, told us that Asperger's could be a gift. Listening to him, my fears about the stigma associated with Asperger's were allayed. I felt proud that I might share a diagnosis with someone who seemed so accomplished and likable.
I recalled this experience when I first picked up Robison's newest book, and, in light of that fond recollection, Be Different proved profoundly disappointing. The back cover sports a blurb from the president of Autism Speaks, an organization that is notorious in the autistic community for its harmful and silencing rhetoric. Robison sits on the science and treatment boards of Autism Speaks, and is one of very few autists with any kind of leadership role in the organization. Instead of using his influence to combat stigma and promote neurodiversity, Robison rehashes the same old harmful tropes associated autism and disability. The title of his book is apparently meant to be taken ironically, as he uses his stories and advice to support neurotypical supremacy and extoll the joys of conformity. "I grew up to be a master musical technician, a business owner, an author, a father, and, most important, a functioning adult who is valued by his family, his friends, and society," Robison remarks in his introduction. The sentence is jarring--social acceptance is more important than parenthood or satisfying employment?
Outright ableism crops up in the first chapter and remains a theme throughout the book. Robison buys into and promotes the pervasive high-functioning/low-functioning hierarchy. He emphatically distances himself from the label of disability and therefore from most of his fellow autists. "Some people with autism are noticeably disabled. A person who can't talk, for example, cries out for compassion," he writes. Later he asserts, "with a strategy, hard work, determination, and the acquisition of hard-won wisdom, we [older Aspergians like Robison] overcame our disabilities to emerge as successful and capable adults."
This attitude raises questions that the book never addresses. How does Robison reconcile his concessions that autism is "a way of being" and that "there is no such thing as normal" with his assertion that autistic people must change to suit society rather than mobilizing and speaking out for access and accommodation? What about the autistic people who are visibly disabled, and those who simply cannot "overcome" their disability? People who are nonverbal deserve pity, apparently, but not empathy or solidarity. It is clear that Robison's book is not intended for any but the most "high-functioning" autists.
Much of the advice that Robison ultimately dispenses can be summed up in two points: take a bath and be polite. That's pretty much it. He offers no insight into many of the practical concerns that affect autists, like how to talk to neurotypical people--"nypicals," as he calls them--about autism, how to negotiate sensory and communication issues, how to balance the need for support with a desire for independence, or how to obtain the accommodations necessary for success. Robison seems to be opposed to the very idea of accommodation. He makes this clear in one particularly reprehensible passage:
Today I meet moms who cut the labels out of their kids' clothes and trim the seams. The first time I heard that, it sounded great. What a nice thing to do, I thought. But when I thought about things a little more, I began to question the wisdom of that. Why? Because removing the irritants doesn't do anything to decrease our sensitivity. And if our clothes tags bother us today, and we don't address the nuisance head-on, where will we be in ten years? Naked at work?
No, Mr. Robison. We'll be adults who need to make an adjustment in order to focus and perform at our best. We'll be grateful that our parents had the insight to make it easier for us to focus our energy on more important endeavors than fighting against our sensory input.
The few points at which Be Different actually does encourage difference, or embracing the "gifts" of Asperger syndrome, always frame Asperger's through the lens of popular stereotypes. According to Robison, people with Asperger's are hyper-logical and have a "lack of emotional sensitivity." We are "geeks," who "populate the Math Club, the computer room, the Science Fiction Society, and other such places." He also dedicates almost two whole pages in a chapter titled "The Art of Conversation" to some very tired stereotypes about women:
I have to be a lot more careful around females than around males. There are certain conversational missteps that seem to provoke hostile reactions only from girls.
...females can also get insulted if I don't praise them, whereas guys don't generally expect compliments...
Girls are the trickiest and most unpredictable creatures a fellow like me will ever talk to.
Right. Women are preening, passive-aggressive, and incomprehensible. Bonus points for repeatedly referring to us condescendingly as "girls." Or maybe that's just me being hostile and tricky.
Robison is also fond of pop-science, particularly the idea of "mirror neurons," and he indulges in a few instances of painful privilege-denying. "In adulthood, the focus shifts from superficial attributes to your actual accomplishments," he declares. "Competence excuses strange behavior." Indeed. We all know the adult world, especially the workplace, is completely free of discrimination based on "superficial attributes" and unusual behavior. Robison's agonizingly trite closing remark evokes patronizing upper class attitudes toward the poor: "Finally, I worked hard. And you can too."
Be Different is not entirely without redeeming qualities. Robison's personal anecdotes and observations do provide compelling insight into what it's like to have Asperger's in world designed by and for neurotypicals. Yet, Robison overwhelms any positive aspects of his book with his unwavering support for a culture in which autists are not only set up for failure, but are silenced and dehumanized. Ultimately, he falls into the old trap of assuming that his experiences as a straight white man are universal, ignoring the factors of race, gender, sexuality, and class that have shaped his identity. I may have Asperger syndrome but, as a young queer female, I can find very little to relate to in his work. Other autists--particularly those who are unable to pass or uninterested in passing as non-disabled--will want to pass on Be Different and look elsewhere for affirmation, solidarity, and support for genuine diversity.