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John Elder Robison’s Advice to Young Aspergians

John Elder Robison didn't know he had Asperger's syndrome until he was forty years old — an astonishing story he told in his New York Times bestseller, Look Me in the Eye. Now, with his new book, Be Different, one of the world's foremost Aspergians returns with a collection of personal stories that illustrates autistic thinking. He shared some of these stories with MacLean's recently, including one from his childhood that conveys the difficulty of living in a social world with an overly rational brain:

“When I was small,” he writes, “I used a spoon to eat most of my soup, and then I picked up the bowl, tipped it, and drank the rest. It’s obvious to me that the most efficient way to ingest soup is to tip the bowl and drink it. Yet my grandmother said it’s rude to do it. For many years, logic prevented me from complying with rules of etiquette like that. I thought they were illogical and foolish, and I refused to go along. Eventually, I came to understand that I benefited from compliance with social rules, even when they seem wasteful and nonsensical. Today, a person’s positive impression of me is worth more than the small amount of extra soup I get by tipping and drinking.”

Robison goes on to share strategies he's developed to help better connect with people. For instance, when talking to people, he envisions a clock in his head to prevent him from stretching out conversations. “For the first 30 seconds after you start talking, imagine a green light in your head,” he says. “After 30 seconds, the light turns yellow. At 60 seconds, it’s red. It takes some mental energy to monitor myself, but it works.” He also tells us how he overcame his innate resistance to meeting new people. “Now I embrace the handshake routine wholeheartedly, and it really works. People accept me much faster now that I ignore them less.” As both a writer and a speaker, Robison loves helping others better understand how people with Asperger's think, feel, and experience the world. What many see as a disorder, Robison sees as a gift: “Greatness happens when you find your unique strengths and build upon them. Building up a weakness just makes you less disabled. Building a strength can take you to the top of the world.”

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