John Elder Robison first noticed there was something different about him when, as a preschooler, he failed at attempts to play with other kids. They wouldn’t play with their trucks the right way, but when he tried to correct them, they turned strangely angry.
After that, they refused to play with him at all, and Robison was crushed.
The troubles with social connection and later, school work, continued throughout Robison’s life, but it wasn’t until the age of 40 that he found a name for his constellation of difficulties: autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In a visit to the ASHA National Office today, the author and national speaker on autism thanked speech-language pathologists for their work at diagnosing, supporting and intervening with people on the spectrum.
“If someone like you doesn’t come along and give someone like me a name, the street will give me a name. And it will be ugly,” said Robison, whose critically acclaimed book “Look Me in the Eye” chronicles his journey of navigating a tumultuous childhood and young adulthood with undiagnosed Asperger syndrome—a type of ASD. (His troubled family was the subject of the best-selling “Running With Scissors” by his brother Augusten Burroughs.)
“If you give it a name, you can’t ‘cure’ it,” he told the audience. “But you can teach kids how to get along in the world, so they don’t go down the path to anxiety and depression. You all have incredible power to do that.”
Robison noted that SLPs and audiologists are also well-positioned to raise awareness of neurodiversity: the notion that neurotypical isn’t necessarily better. It’s just one way of being among many. He likened bullying of—and discrimination against—people on the spectrum to unfair treatment of any racial, cultural or minority group.
Parents may tell their children on the spectrum that we should all respect each other’s differences. “But let’s be honest,” said Robison. “Kids in school don’t see it that way. Professionals like you who are embedded in schools can help change their perceptions that different is ‘bad’ or ‘less.’ Help them see that autism is part of who we are, just like red hair or blue eyes.”
Also key is SLPs’ work teaching kids on the spectrum social and conversational skills through their widening array of interventions, said Robison. He received valuable articulation treatment from SLPs in middle school but had to figure out pragmatic social skills on his own—“slowly and haltingly into adulthood,” he said. Both articulation and pragmatic interventions are needed to set children with ASD on their way to success in all aspects of life, said Robison.
“My ability to speak precisely kept me from being bullied,” said Robison, who, despite struggling socially and dropping out of high school, excelled at electrical and digital engineering. He broke into designing mega-amps and exploding guitars for major rock bands like KISS and ultimately ended up working in management for top electronics corporations. He’s since traded that career for a business restoring vintage cars, where he feels much more comfortable.
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And he’s found a new calling as a writer and speaker on autism—his other books include “Be Different,” “Raising Cubby” and the forthcoming “Switched On.” In addition, he delivers workshops and lectures globally, advocating via various autism organizations and serving as a scholar-in-residence at William & Mary, where he is co-teaching a course on neurodiversity. He is also serving on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on which several SLPs also serve. He had just been meeting with the committee before stopping by ASHA’s offices today.
Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.