I read this book shortly after reading Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin, and my first impression was how lackluster this seemed by comparison. Grandin’s book was absolutely fascinating, and I learned a lot from it. The first few chapters of Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, by John Elder Robison, were mildly interesting, but no more than that.
As I continued, though, Robison started to cover material that was new to me. I already know about how people with Asperger Syndrome, and more generally people with any autism spectrum disorder, tend to have particular routines and behaviors that are important to them, while paying little if any attention to the social conventions followed by society at large. The chapters on learning manners as an adult were of some interest because I had to also, though for different reasons. When Robison got into emotions and mirror neurons, however, I really got interested.
People with Asperger’s tend to appear unemotional to other people, both because they do not display the same emotional responses we are accustomed to, and because they tend to approach situations from a strictly logical perspective. What Robison explains, however, is that he feels all the same emotions, he just doesn’t understand what other people are feeling, or know how to express emotions the way most people do.
I think I had heard of mirror neurons before (perhaps in another book about autism spectrum disorders), but I didn’t remember anything much about them. This is an area of ongoing research, so what Robison writes is hardly the last word on the subject, but what he says makes sense. Mirror neurons, apparently, enable us to feel the emotion that another person is expressing – most of which is done nonverbally. When you smile, I tend to smile. When you show sadness, I feel bad. When you are angry, I’m likely to feel anger also.
According to Robison, this is what enables us to learn what other people feel, and to develop empathy. People with autism spectrum disorders have relatively weak mirror neurons (some more so than others), so to a large extent they are “blind” to the emotions of other people. Robison was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until he was forty (the diagnosis was unknown when he was growing up), so he had no idea why his attempts to interact with people usually failed so miserably. He still has difficulty interpreting people’s emotions, but he compensates well enough to get along with people far better than he used to.
A blog post written by someone else with an autism spectrum disorder goes into more detail about the difficulties that he and others have with recognizing and dealing with their own emotions. He points out the lack of connections between different parts of the brain in people with autism, and says that the part that produces emotions and the part that analyzes emotions do not seem to be connected very well. I knew about the lack of connections from Grandin’s book and elsewhere, but I hadn’t thought about this aspect of it before. (The same person provides a review of Robison’s book here, including comments on ways in which Robison’s experiences and opinions cannot be generalized to all people with autism spectrum disorders.)
Robison gives a lot of practical advice for people with Asperger’s or other autism spectrum disorders – or even for those he calls “proto-Aspergians,” who have some of the same traits but not enough to be diagnosed with a disorder. (I found myself wondering, occasionally, whether I fit into that category.) He describes the coping strategies he developed, especially in the difficult areas of social interaction.
A final, very interesting section, deals with finding the ways in which one’s differences from the “neurotypical” person (which Robison prefers to call a “nypical”) can be a gift rather than a problem. (Grandin also addressed this in showing how people with autism can understand animals better.) His ability to concentrate intensely on a single topic enabled him to become an expert on certain kinds of technology, especially music. His lack of a visceral reaction to the sight of a person killed in an auto crash (a policeman coming onto the scene promptly threw up) helped him do what needed to be done to assist someone else (the driver of the car that hit him, whom he might not have wanted to help if he were reacting emotionally rather than logically).
I didn’t see any obvious similarities between Robison and my autistic son (I did see more between Robison and my nephew, who has Asperger Syndrome). But his overall approach, finding ways to overcome some difficulties, learn to live with others, and find where some of his differences are strengths, provides an excellent model for success – for anyone, Aspergian or not.