“I believe those of us with Asperger’s are here for a reason, and we have much to offer. This book will help you bring out those gifts.”
In his bestselling memoir, Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robison described growing up with Asperger’s syndrome at a time when the diagnosis didn’t exist. He was intelligent but socially isolated; his talents won him jobs with toy makers and rock bands but did little to endear him to authority figures and classmates, who were put off by his inclination to blurt out non sequiturs and avoid eye contact.
By the time he was diagnosed at age forty, John had already developed a myriad of coping strategies that helped him achieve a seemingly normal, even highly successful, life. In Be Different, Robison shares a new batch of endearing stories
about his childhood, adolescence, and young adult years, giving the reader a rare window into the Aspergian mind.
In each story, he offers practical advice—for Aspergians and indeed for anyone who feels “different”—on how to improve the weak communication and social skills that keep so many people from taking full advantage of their often remarkable gifts. With his trademark honesty and unapologetic eccentricity, Robison addresses questions like:
• How to read others and follow their behaviors when in uncertain social situations
• Why manners matter
• How to harness your powers of concentration to master difficult skills
• How to deal with bullies
• When to make an effort to fit in, and when to embrace eccentricity
• How to identify special gifts and use them to your advantage
Every person, Aspergian or not, has something unique to offer the world, and every person has the capacity to create strong, loving bonds with their friends and family. Be Different will help readers and those they love find their path to success.
Asperger’s came into my life when I was forty years old. I’m a pretty levelheaded guy, but I was totally shocked by the diagnosis. “Yep,” the doctors said, “you were born this way.” I could not believe I had reached middle age without knowing such a hugely important thing about myself. I was amazed to learn that Asperger’s is a kind of autism, because I thought everyone with autism was disabled. I’d always envisioned myself as a loner, a geek, and a misﬁt, but I would never have described myself as disabled. To me, being disabled meant having no legs I believe that. or being unable to talk. Yet autism, and so Asperger’s, was a disability—that’s what the books said. I’m still not sure I believe that.
The one shred of reassurance I got that ﬁrst day was the knowledge that Asperger’s isn’t a terminal illness. “You’re not getting sicker,” they told me, “and it won’t kill you. You’re actually not sick at all; you’re just different.” Great, I thought. Very comforting.
All of a sudden, the concept of “people like me” took on a whole new meaning. Moments before, I’d have described myself as a middle-aged white male. I was a successful business owner, a husband, and a father. Now I was a guy with Asperger’s. I was autistic. Everything else seemed secondary to that new facet of me. This must be how it feels when you ﬁnd you have cancer, I thought. I was still the same guy I had been the day before. I didn’t feel sick. Yet somehow, in a matter of seconds, my diagnosis had come to dominate my self- image.
In the weeks that followed, I read everything I could about the diagnosis, and I began to relax. When I thought back on my life, Asperger’s explained so many things. School had been hard for me, and I’d done some pretty unusual stuff after dropping out. My new knowledge of Asperger’s brought those memories into focus, and I saw how the differences in my brain had shaped the course of my life in countless subtle ways. Yet I also realized that the success I enjoyed as an adult was real, and it wasn’t going away. In fact, as I moved forward with new knowledge and conﬁdence, I started to see my life get better every day.
Later, with the beneﬁt of this new knowledge, I studied my Aspergian son, now twenty-one years old, and thought about how he too used to struggle in school and in social settings. He was diagnosed when he was sixteen, twenty-four years earlier than me. I look at him today, and I see how much he’s beneﬁted from understanding how and why his brain is different from other folks’. In many ways, he’s the young man I could have been if only I had known what I had. I made it through life the hard way; he has the beneﬁt of knowledge to rely on. That will make his path easier, and it can make yours easier, too.
Observed from the outside, Asperger’s is a series of quirks and behavioral aberrations. Aspergians are not physically disabled, though an observant person might pick us out of a crowd by our unusual gait or even by our expressions. Most Aspergians possess all the body parts and basic abilities for the full range of human functions. We’re also complete on the inside. When today’s brain scientists talk Asperger’s, there’s no mention of damage— just difference. Neurologists have not identiﬁ ed anything that’s missing or ruined in the Asperger brain. That’s a very important fact. We are not like the unfortunate people who’ve lost millions of neurons through strokes, drinking, lead poisoning, or accidental injury. Our brains are complete; it’s just the interconnections that are different.
All people with autism have some kind of communication impairment. “Traditional” autistic people have trouble understanding or speaking language. If you can’t talk, or understand others, you are indeed going to be disabled in our society. The degree of impairment can vary greatly, with some autistic people totally devoid of speech and others affected in less substantial ways.
Autistic people can also have impairment in the ability to read nonverbal signals from others. That’s the kind of autism I have; it’s what most people with Asperger’s are touched with. The stories in this book describe the ways in which I minimized the harm my communication impairment caused me, while ﬁnding the gifts it conferred.
Autism in its many forms is not a disease. It’s a way of being that comes from this nonstandard wiring in the brain. The latest science suggests we’re most likely born different, or else we become autistic early in infancy. We don’t develop Asperger’s as teenagers; life on the autism spectrum is the only life we’ve ever known. We will always be perplexed when we gaze at people who aren’t on the spectrum, and they will always struggle to understand our unconventional way of thinking.
Subtle brain differences often cause people like me to respond differently—strangely even—to common life situations. Most of us have a hard time with social situations; some of us feel downright crippled. We get frustrated because we’re so good at some things, while being completely inept at others. There’s just no balance. It’s a very difﬁcult way to live, because our strengths seem to contrast so sharply with our weaknesses. “You read so well, and you’re so smart! I can’t believe you can’t do what I told you. You must be faking!” I heard that a lot as a kid.
Some people with autism are noticeably disabled. A person who can’t talk, for example, cries out for compassion. Those of us with Asperger’s are tougher to pick out.
The hardest thing about having Asperger’s is that we don’t look any different from anyone else on the outside. So why would anyone suspect that we are different on the inside? When I was a kid, no one had any knowledge of how my brain was wired, including me. Consequently, society wrote me off as defective along with millions of other “different” and “difﬁcult” children. My strange behavior was described as “bad” instead of being seen for what it was—the innocent result of neurological difference.
Today most kids are diagnosed earlier than I was, but still, for many of us, knowledge of Asperger’s starts with some kind of failure. Most kids get diagnosed with Asperger’s after failing at some aspect of school, and their behavior has brought them to the attention of the little men in suits who give tests.
I may not have been tested in school, but the differences in me were still obvious. I could not make friends, I acted strange, and I ﬂunked all my courses. Back then, people said I was just a bad kid, but today we see problems like mine as evidence of disability, and, as a society, we supply help, not punishment. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Today, many geeks, scientists, and other creative geniuses are said to have Asperger’s. But to some of us, the phrase “have Asperger’s” is misleading because it makes Asperger’s sound like a disease or an injury. You say, “I have a cold” or “I’ve got a broken leg.” Saying you “have” something implies that it’s temporary and undesirable.
Asperger’s isn’t like that. You’ve been Aspergian as long as you can remember, and you’ll be that way all your life. It’s a way of being, not a disease.
That’s why I say, “I am a person with Asperger’s.”
Many of us shorten this by saying we’re Aspergians, or Aspies. I think that’s more appropriate than saying, “We have Asperger’s.” There’s no right or wrong—you can say whatever you want, or say nothing at all. Whatever you choose, you’re in good company. Bill Gates is said to be Aspergian. Musician Glenn Gould is said to have been Aspergian, along with scientist Albert Einstein, actor Dan Aykroyd, writer Isaac Asimov, and movie director Alfred Hitchcock. As adults, none of those people would be described as disabled, but they were certainly eccentric and different.
If everyone with Asperger’s achieved a high level of success, no one would call it a disability. Unfortunately, those people are the exceptions, not the rule. Most Aspergians struggle with school, relationships, and jobs because their social skills are poor and they can’t seem to ﬁt in. It’s all too easy to end up alone, alienated, and unemployed. That’s what life was like for me before I learned how to work with my differences, overcome them, and sometimes exploit them. As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate how my differences have turned out also to include gifts that have set me apart. One of my main goals in life today is to help young people avoid some of the traps I fell into. We should all be given a chance to succeed.
There’s a lot more to this story than simple disability. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Be Different by John Elder Robison. Copyright © 2011 by John Elder Robison. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
NOTE TO TEACHERS
NOTE TO TEACHERS
Developed and written by students and faculty of The Monarch School, Houston, Texas. Students: Graham Bryant, Evan Joyce, Houston Keeling, Shay Roberts, Thorir Siggurdson, Riley Simpson, Sam Thonnard. Faculty: Frank Singer and John Barone.
– With advice and suggestions from the author, John Elder Robison –
About the Book
When John Elder Robison published his memoir, Look Me in the Eye, in 2007, readers were given a window into the life of a man who spent forty years growing up knowing that he was different but not able to identify the cause of that difference. Born before the Asperger diagnosis came into widespread use, Robison struggled for years without answers to his inexplicable behavior. Unable to pick up social cues or access emotion or feelings, Robison was labeled defective by his parents, as well as the kids on the playground. In his inspiring and moving memoir, which became a New York Times bestseller, Robison wrote about growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome and emerging as a fully realized adult.
In his new book, Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers, Robison argues that Asperger’s and similar conditions denote difference, but not necessarily disability. With his usual honesty, dark humor, and unapologetic eccentricity, he addresses challenges anyone who is different may face, such as:
· How to read others and follow their behaviors when in uncertain social situations
· Why manners matter
· How to harness your powers of concentration to master difficult skills
· How to deal with bullies
· When to make an effort to fit in, and when to embrace your eccentricity
· How to identify special gifts and use them to your advantage
Equally important, Robison offers practical advice—to Aspergians, their parents, and educators—on how Aspergians can improve the weak communication and social skills that keep them from taking full advantage of, or even recognizing, their often remarkable gifts.
About the Author
JOHN ELDER ROBISON, born in Athens, Georgia, grew up in the 1960s before the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome existed. Today, he has claimed his spot on the autism spectrum. He is an author and frequent lecturer about his life with Asperger’s. He blogs for Psychology Today and is an adjunct faculty member at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts. John has served on committees and review boards for the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. He is currently involved in autism research and therapy programs at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital. John also sits on the science and treatment boards of Autism Speaks. His previous book, Look Me in the Eye, was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into ten languages and published in more than sixty countries. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
To the extent possible, John responds personally to student and teacher queries through his blog, jerobison.blogspot.com; his website, www.johnrobison.com; and pages on Facebook and other social-networking sites.
About the Guide
This guide was developed and written by students and faculty of the Monarch School, which is part of the Monarch Institute for Neurological Differences, www.monarchinstitute.org, dedicated to empowering vulnerable individuals with neurological differences to move from dependence to interdependence and make more meaningful contributions in life. In constructing the guide, the class met regularly, read each chapter, and then developed and piloted discussion questions and exercises to explore the themes of the book.
Designed to challenge students to grow in their creative and critical thinking skills, the guide includes all levels of questions as defined by Bloom’s Taxonomy (http://www.officeport.com/edu/blooms.htm). For each chapter of the book, six discussion questions are provided, increasing in complexity and moving toward higher-level thinking.
Also provided are “Further Discussion and Exercises,” which allow students to dig deeper and creatively explore the concepts and issues discussed throughout the book.
Guided Reading and Discussion Questions
1. How long did John have to set up Ace’s special guitar?
2. What might have happened if the guitar didn’t work?
3. Talk about a time in your life when you experienced excitement and/or nervousness during an important event.
4. Identify the author’s use of hyperbole to describe the band’s volume.
5. If you designed your own special guitar, what characteristics would it have?
6. Discuss the author’s decision to focus on the positive aspects of Asperger’s syndrome in this book. What are the benefits to this approach?
Asperger’s and Me
1. How old was John when he found out he had Asperger’s?
2. Compare how John felt about himself before and after he was diagnosed, and then after he learned of his own Aspergianism.
3. Given all the characteristics of Asperger’s that John describes, which do you think were most important for him to share with his son? Why?
4. What do you suppose the differences were between John’s childhood and his son’s?
5. According to studies, most people with Asperger’s do not achieve a high level of success. What factors do you think could increase an Aspergian’s chances of success?
6. Which do you think is a better description: “I have Asperger’s” or “I am a person with Asperger’s”? Defend your answer.
The Three Categories: Aspergian, Proto-Aspergian, and Nypical
1. Define each of John’s “three kinds of people.”
2. Discuss the differences in each of these types.
3. What questions might you ask, or what might you observe, to determine which type a person is?
4. How do John’s categories compare with other labels used to describe different types of people?
5. Can you think of alternative creative names for each of John’s three groups?
6. How does John’s title of “nypical” differ from the term “normal”? Debate which term is preferable.
Finding Your Path to “Fitting In”
1. Why does John say he wrote this book?
2. Explain in your own words the two things John identifies as the most important lessons for Aspergians to learn.
3. Illustrate John’s comparison of youth and adults with a list of behaviors that would be criticized in children but accepted in adults.
4. Reflect on others’ reactions to your behaviors as a small child as compared to their reactions to your behavior now.
5. Predict how others may react to you differently in the future based on your advancing age and requisite maturity.
6. John identifies the ability to make friends as an important factor in growing from “disabled” to “gifted.” What other factors would you identify as important? Why?
Part 1: Rituals, Manners, and Quirks
For the Love of Routine
1. What activity does John identify as a ritual that could only be done one way?
2. Restate John’s strategy for dealing with people who do things differently from him.
3. Talk about a time when your manners were criticized by others, and how you felt and responded.
4. How was John’s experience with the asparagus similar to yours? Have you encountered other challenging foods? If so, how did you handle the challenge, and why?
5. If you could change one rule of etiquette, what would it be? Explain why.
6. Do you think people should be able to eat any way they wish, or do you think manners and guidelines are a good thing? Defend your answer.
What’s in a Name?
1. What are some of the nicknames that John has assigned to people, animals, and objects?
2. Explain John’s rationale for calling hands and feet “paws.”
3. What are some names for things like “doctor’s office” that you’ve noticed don’t seem logical?
4. What problems with others might John experience as a result of his alternative “naming”?
5. What would life be like if every person called everyone and everything by whatever name made sense to them?
6. Do you think John should continue to give alternative names to people, or do you think the practice is rude? Explain your answer.
Mind Your Manners
1. How did John view the practice of “good manners” in his childhood?
2. Describe how his perspective on manners changed over the years.
3. Share a time when you got in trouble for using bad manners. Recall your thoughts and feelings at the time?
4. Make a list of manners that you find arbitrary or illogical. Do these practices have any social value?
5. Has your perspective changed as John’s did on the importance of manners as you’ve gotten older? Why do you think you value them differently now?
A Reason to Care
1. What were the factors that led to John dropping out of high school?
2. What are some differences between John’s generation and your own?
3. What factors had the most influence on John’s decision to drop out?
4. How might John’s path have been different if he had grown up in your time?
5. If you had been John’s guidance counselor, what would you have done differently to help John?
6. John refused to change his appearance and behavior to please the adults around him, but quickly cut his hair and changed his clothes when a potential girlfriend came into his life. Do you believe he did the right thing? How would you have handled it?
What Are You Afraid Of?
1. Describe John’s fear of sleeping with a blanket over his head.
2. Compare John’s view of this behavior with Diane’s.
3. What questions would you ask to determine which view is the correct one?
4. Examine John’s perspective and identify the problems with his view.
5. How would you convince John that sleeping with his head under blankets is safe?
6. Do you think someone with Asperger’s has an advantage over a “nypical” when confronted with fears? Explain.
Part 2: Emotions
(Not) Reading People
1. How did John react to the facial expressions of adults when he was a toddler?
2. Discuss how John’s reactions were different from a “nypical” toddler.
3. How did you react to adult facial expressions at that age?
4. Examine the similarities and differences in your interaction with adults compared to John’s.
5. Predict how John’s difficulties in reading facial expressions impacted him as a young boy.
6. As a child, John often seemed nonresponsive to cues from others. Were the resulting reactions of his grandmother and other relatives wrong or reasonable? Why?
What Is Love?
1. Talk about John’s reaction to his mother’s “I love you” at bed time.
2. Explain how his Aspergian brain perceived and responded to these words.
3. Describe how you reacted to loving words from your parents as a young child.
4. How do you think John’s father’s “drunken rages” compounded John’s difficulty in responding emotionally to loving words?
5. What are some other ways parents communicate their love other than words? What ways would be best for a child with Asperger’s?
6. What advice would you offer to parents of children with Asperger’s based on John’s account of his difficulties?
1. What happened when John broke his mother’s friend’s fancy vase?
2. In your own words, share how John responded to her sarcasm.
3. Have you ever misread someone’s tone or intention when they were being sarcastic with you?
4. Compare your response with John’s.
5. What changes in communication would be helpful when sharing strong feelings with an Aspergian?
6. Are people with Asperger’s still responsible for hurtful actions even if they can’t interpret others’ upset? Defend your answer.
Making and Keeping Friends
1. Describe John’s strategy to compensate for his inability to read other people’s moods.
2. Explain John’s difficulty in accurately reading those he’s meeting for the first time.
3. Talk about a time when you “misread” someone’s mood. What happened?
4. Discuss how growth in a relationship can make up for difficulty in reading moods.
5. What are some ways that people with Asperger’s can compensate for their difficulty in reading the moods of others?
6. Do people with Asperger’s bear the responsibility for compensating alone, or should the people they meet also share in that effort? Explain.
Feeling Bad News
1. Relate what happened to Peter on his motorcycle.
2. Identify the differences in response between John and Brya.
3. If you were in a similar situation, would your response be closer to John’s or to Brya’s?
4. What are some other possible responses besides theirs?
5. What do you think would be the best response for everyone involved?
6. Some people might describe Brya’s reaction as “caring and positive” and John’s reaction as “negative and selfish.” Others might describe Brya’s reaction as “unrealistic” and “overly optimistic” and John’s reaction as “realistic and honest.” How do you see their reactions?
Keeping Cool in a Crisis
1. How did John react after the accident?
2. Identify some key decisions that John made that were helpful.
3. How might it have played out differently if John were a nypical?
4. What are some other situations in life when an Aspergian response might be preferable?
5. How do you think you would have reacted if you were in John’s situation?
6. If you were the injured party, would you want a nypical or an Aspergian helping you? Or perhaps one of each? Explain why.
Part 3: Getting Along with Others
The Center of the Universe
1. What does John say he does when walking into a room where someone else is watching television?
2. Describe John’s explanation of the difference between his actions and those of a “self-centered nypical” who does the same thing.
3. If you were the person watching television, would your reaction be different toward someone with Asperger’s as opposed to a nypical? Why or why not? How would you know what to do?
4. What are some of the problems with dismissing this behavior as a developmental difference?
5. Can you think of a way that John could prevent problems resulting from this behavior in the future?
6. Does having Asperger’s excuse this behavior, or is John still accountable for his actions? Explain.
The Art of Conversation
1. What did John learn about the importance of being “context sensitive” when he answered others?
2. Describe how John’s exceptional language skills worked against him when he was younger.
3. Talk about a time when you said something awkward or inappropriate in a conversation.
4. Explain the effects that your words had on the others in the conversation.
5. Did you learn from your mistake and apply that knowledge in future conversations? If so, how?
6. If someone has an advanced vocabulary, should they deliberately choose simpler words for conversations with some people? Why or why not?
Lobster Claws: Dealing with Bullies
1. How did John solve his problem with Don the Bully?
2. Describe John’s actions compared with those of Don. What motivated each boy to act the way he did?
3. Discuss a time when you reacted inappropriately to being “in trouble.”
4. How else could John have reacted? Would it have solved the problem?
5. Put yourself in Don’s place. What reaction do you think would help you to stop being a bully? How have you avoided becoming a bully or being bullied yourself?
6. Do you think the assistant principal had a right to expect John to feel sorry for Don? Defend your answer.
1. Describe John’s strategy for staying safe in elementary school.
2. How and why did that strategy change when he went into seventh grade?
3. Which, if any, of John’s methods have you used in the past?
4. Did you have similar outcomes as John when confronted with bullies in the past? Explain.
5. John describes the Monarch School as a peaceful, gentle place. What policies and practices help make a school safe?
6. Is “standing up for yourself” always the smartest solution? Identify some situations where other strategies would be better.
Getting Chosen (and Becoming Choosable)
1. What characteristics and behaviors made it difficult for John to have a girlfriend when he was in school?
2. How do you think his having Asperger’s impacted John’s efforts to have a girlfriend?
3. Have you experienced similar struggles in attracting potential boyfriends/girlfriends or friends of the opposite sex?
4. Compare your relationships with John’s, identifying the similarities and differences.
5. If you had been John’s friend back then, what dating advice would you have given him?
6. John found that changing himself to become more “choosable” was more effective in getting a girlfriend than working on how he approached girls. Which strategy do you think is better? Or should there be a combination of both?
Part 4: Tuned In: Sensitivity to the Nonhuman World
Underwear with Teeth
1. Describe John’s sensory sensitivity.
2. Explain the strategy John employed to deal with this sensitivity.
3. What sensory sensitivities do you have? Are you sensitive to certain fabrics, tastes, noises, smells, or bright lights?
4. What strategies do you employ to deal with your sensitivities?
5. What advice would you give younger children dealing with this issue?
6. Which is better, accommodating the sensitivity (cutting off tags) or learning to live with it (John’s “distraction” strategy)?
1. Relate what happened to John when he went behind the stage.
2. Explain how watching what went on in the backs of the amplifiers was more enjoyable to John than being on the dance floor. Why?
3. Can you identify an interest that you have that is similar to John’s passion for electronics? Why do you think you have this interest?
4. How do you think the rest of the evening might have gone had John not “seen the music”?
5. How do you think this event changed John’s future path?
6. Was it good for John to have discovered this passion, or did you think it distracted him and hindered his relationship development?
Managing Sensory Overload
1. Describe the sensory sensitivity experienced by John and others on the autism spectrum.
2. How does John’s “focus strategy” help him to avoid sensory overload?
3. Do you ever feel “overloaded” by loud music, big crowds, or bright lights?
4. If so, what helps you in those situations?
5. What other strategies can you think of that would help others cope in overwhelming sensory situations?
6. Shouldn’t people with sensory sensitivities simply avoid situations with extreme stimuli? What are the benefits to developing coping strategies instead?
A Walk in the Woods
1. Why does John feel safer in the wilderness than at a party with strangers?
2. What differences exist between John and his brother with respect to the outdoors?
3. Are you more like John or his brother in your feelings toward the outdoors?
4. What experiences did John have that led to his feeling confident and safe in the woods?
5. What are some ways that John could help his brother to be in the woods? And how could John’s brother help John to be more confident and comfortable at parties?
6. Do you think Asperger’s has had an impact on John’s affinity for the wilderness, or do you think it’s more of a function of his personality? Explain why.
A Day at the Races
1. What are John’s favorite things at the Three County Fair?
2. Describe John’s criteria for a good spot to watch the races.
3. What is your favorite part of a fair or carnival? Why do you like this part the best?
4. Compare your experience at the fair with John’s. Which do you prefer?
5. If you could design the perfect fair, what are the top five events you would include?
6. Do you think the pig races occurred just how John described, or do you think John embellished this story with his imagination? What might John have changed, and why?
Part 5: Finding Your Gifts
1. What does John consider his “first Aspergian gift”?
2. Compare John’s understanding of calculus principles compared to that of a math professor’s.
3. Are there subjects about which you have an imaginative or hands-on understanding rather than an academic understanding? If so, what are they?
4. What are some of the benefits of this type of understanding? What are the drawbacks?
5. Pick something you are very interested in but know little about. Would you rather have an abstract theoretical knowledge of the topic, or a hands-on, experiential understanding? Why?
6. Do you think that John’s “mathematical vision” is an acceptable substitute for traditional math? Why or why not?
I’m with the Band
1. What are the attributes that John identifies as “vital to success”?
2. Explain how John exhibited these attributes in his work with guitars and sound systems.
3. Is it difficult or easy for you to work in a team and collaborate with others? What would have happened in John’s work if he didn’t have these attributes? Explain.
4. Write about your feelings in relation to John’s description of his lack of self-confidence with social interaction compared to his confidence in regards to working with machines.
5. John shared that his lack of social skills gave him more time to focus on his learning. How can developing these skills enhance your learning?
1. As smart as John was, why did he not make good grades in school?
2. How do you think John was perceived by his teachers?
3. Do you think your grades reflect your ability? Explain.
4. Compare your school experience with John’s. How did you react when you were assigned to read something that doesn’t hold your interest?
5. How could John’s teachers have helped him do better in school?
6. If John had the freedom to choose his own topics of study, he would likely have done much better in school. Do you think students should have the freedom to make decisions about what they wish to learn? Why or why not?
Attention to Detail
1. How does John account for his exceptional ability to work with machines?
2. Share in your own words the importance that practice plays in eventual success.
3. Talk about a skill or talent in which you have improved. What role did practice have in your improvement?
4. Share about a skill or talent in which you’d like to improve.
5. How could a commitment to practice affect your success with this skill in the future?
6. Could John have applied the same principle of practice to his relationship skills? How might his school experience have been different?
Secrets of My Success
1. List John’s “Secrets of Success.”
2. Why does John believe that focusing on building strengths is better than focusing on improving areas of weakness?
3. Do you agree with this stance? Why, or why not?
4. What are your strengths?
5. What do you see as possible outcomes in the future if you were to focus on building your strengths?
6. Choose one of your strengths and identify the resources you will need in the future to take full advantage of this strength.
Further Discussion and Exercises
1. From “Rituals, Manners, and Quirks”
a. “What’s in a Name?”
i. Create a comedy routine that includes reasons why the names for the following are illogical, and provide more logical replacement names for:
3. Tire iron
4. Light switch
5. (One item that you identify)
ii. Discuss the confusion and difficulty encountered by those with Asperger’s when they encounter the many “illogical” names in their language.
b. “What Are You Afraid Of?”
i. Ask students to draw pictures of “monsters” they were afraid of as small children, sharing how they responded to this fear back then and how they viewed the same monster as they got older.
ii. Writing Project: Research and compare “monsters” from American culture, e.g., Bigfoot, to those from other countries, e.g., the Loch Ness Monster.
iii. Draw a line on the board, and identify the points at the ends as “Rational” and “Irrational.”
iv. Invite students to come up to the board, share something they are or have been afraid of, and identify the point on the line that reflects their judgment regarding the rationality of their fear.
v. Allow discussion of strategies and appropriate responses to both rational and irrational fears.
2. From “Emotions”
a. “Emotional Triggers”
i. Role-play the communication of the following statements, first with sincere tone and body language, and then with sarcasm.
1. “That outfit you’re wearing is just perfect.”
2. “You want to join us at the lunch table? Yeah, you’d fit right in.”
3. “I can tell we are going to get along just great.”
ii. Discuss how sarcastic tone and body language can be hurtful.
iii. Reflect on the extra difficulties and potential harm for someone with Asperger’s who can’t discern when someone is being sarcastic. How can they be hurt even more?
b. “Feeling Bad News”
i. Draw a continuum line on the board with the end points of “John’s reaction” and “Brya’s reaction.”
ii. Read the following event descriptions one at a time, and invite students to place a mark on the continuum to indicate the most appropriate response, and then explain their choice.
1. Peter got into a bad motorcycle wreck the night before, but luckily had only a few scrapes.
2. Peter got into a bad motorcycle wreck and may lose his leg. The accident happened because Peter was intoxicated.
3. Peter got into a bad motorcycle wreck the night before and escaped with a few scrapes, but the accident resulted in the death of a newly married young couple.
4. Peter got into a bad motorcycle wreck the night before and died at the scene.
iii. Discuss how empathy and positivity should differ depending on the circumstances. Consider the complexity of deciding how to react for nypicals and those with Asperger’s.
3. From “Getting Along with Others”
a. “The Center of the Universe”
i. Set up a structured investigation and debate over the following assertions made by John:
1. “Everyone thinks of themselves first.”
2. “Everyone is self-centered.”
3. “The difference between Aspergians and nypicals in regard to their self-centeredness is that Apergians are unaware and that nypicals consciously exploit those around them for their own gain.”
ii. Discuss accountability and culpability regarding self-centered behavior in nypicals and Aspergians.
b. “Lobster Claws: Dealing with Bullies”
i. List common triggers of empathic responses, and ask the students to describe a nypical response as well as an Aspergian response, based on John’s narrative. Include triggers such as death, disease, natural disasters, and emotional distress causing events such as the loss of a girlfriend, social isolation, parental pressure, or academic stress.
ii. Brainstorm a list of the different ways one might have reacted in response to Don’s bullying.
iii. Invite students to determine the appropriateness of each reaction, including John’s “Lobster Claw” strategy, by moving to the place in the room that represents their view. Designate one side of the room as “completely agree,” the middle as “not sure,” and the other side “completely disagree.”
iv. Discuss proactive ways your school community can reduce bullying, e.g., mediation for conflict resolution, shared values, empowering students to defend one another, etc.
4. From “Tuned In: Sensitivity to the Nonhuman World”
a. “Underwear with Teeth”
i. Instruct students to prepare “Sensory Sensitivity Surveys” containing questions regarding sensitivity to different sensations. Include touch (clothing types, tags, etc.), smells, sounds, tastes, and sights (e.g. bright lighting).
ii. Have the students interview others and record their responses, tabulating the results and figuring percentages.
iii. After students report their findings, lead a discussion about individual and community strategies to address sensory sensitivities.
b. “A Day at the Races”
i. Provide students with a list of topics for ordinary public gatherings similar to John’s “race at the fair,” including events such as a parade, a picnic, a day at the beach, a beauty pageant, and a political rally.
ii. Ask students to choose one of these events, or their own event (with teacher approval), and write a short story with a quirky twist that gets revealed at the end, similar to John’s “Pig Races.”
iii. Invite them to “perform” their story aloud for the rest of the class.
iv. Discuss the benefits of thinking “outside the box” with creative quirkiness.
5. From “Finding Your Gifts”
a. “I’m with the Band”
i. Invite students to reflect on and choose a “special interest” of theirs that might be odd or unusual.
ii. Have them find another student who is interested in learning more about their special interests.
iii. Provide class time to teach/share these interests with their partners.
iv. Lead a discussion in the benefits of a community in which interests are varied, and what life would be like if everyone’s interests were the same.
v. Point out the interests of people with Asperger’s and how they have contributed to society, including the author’s contributions.
b. “Secrets of My Success”
i. Instruct students to identify their own areas of strength in each of the following categories: academics, organizational skills, relationship skills, and temperament.
ii. Invite them to write a goal for each strength that will allow them to use it more and become even stronger in that area.
iii. Include in the assignment a weekly journal time in which students reflect on and record their progress throughout the grading period.
iv. At the end of the grading period, allow students to share in small and/or large group how they’ve improved in their areas of strength, as well as if and how their lives have changed as a result.
Other Titles of Interest
1. Look Me in the Eye, Robison, John, Crown Publishing, 2007
2. Freaks, Geeks, and Asperger Syndrome, Jackson, Luke, Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2002
3. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Haddon, Mark, Doubleday, 2003
4. Thinking in Pictures, Grandin, Temple, Vintage Books, 1995
5. Born on a Blue Day, Tammet, Daniel, Simon and Schuster, 2007
1. John Elder Robison
2. Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders (ICDL)
Founded by Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder, the ICDL has been a pioneer in its work to advance the identification, prevention, and treatment of developmental and learning disorders.
3. Autism Asperger Publishing Company (AAPC)
Their mission is to “be your first source for practical solutions related to autism, Asperger syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders.”
4. The Asperger Syndrome Coalition of the U.S.
A national nonprofit organization committed to providing the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on Asperger syndrome and related conditions.
5. The Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP)
GRASP is an educational and advocacy organization serving individuals on the autism spectrum.
6. MAAP Services for Autism and Asperger Syndrome
A nonprofit organization dedicated to providing information and advice to families of more advanced individuals with autism, Asperger syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).
7. Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support (OASIS)