Book review: Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers, by John Elder Robison
It gets better.
If there’s one message that fairly leaps off the pages of John Elder Robison’s latest book, Be Different, it would be this: growing up with Asperger Syndrome can be a hard slog, but it doesn’t have to be that way forever.
Subtitled Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers, the book is a survival guide aimed at showing Aspergians (Robison’s calls term for himself and others with Asperger’s), how to navigate more successfully in a world that often misunderstands or rejects them.
The book is a clever and beautifully written study in contradictions, not least of which is how to embrace one’s own uniqueness as an Aspergian, while also making the necessary effort to fit in with “nypicals,” which is Robison’s pet term for neurotypicals or non-Aspergians.
It is this central theme that sets Be Different apart from many other books about Asperger’s, which are often written with a focus on Asperger’s as a disability.
Robison concedes that children and young people with Asperger’s may indeed be very disabled at first, a point he also made in his bestselling 2007 memoir, Look Me in the Eye. But he makes a powerful argument in Be Different, which is geared towards teenagers and adults, that much of this can be overcome through two key things: fading out the less helpful traits of Asperger’s, and focusing instead on one’s own strengths and gifts.
To this end he talks about acquiring basic social “survival skills” such as good manners, good grooming, and better interpersonal skills. Echoing autistic author and scientist Temple Grandin, who has also written and spoken extensively on the subject, Robison asserts that simply making oneself more approachable or “choosable” can set off a positive cycle of more success with friends and co-workers, and fewer feelings of frustration, loneliness and anger.
His emphasis on strengths may come as an eye-opener for Aspergians and others who may have spent too much of their lives simply trying to “fix” themselves. Robison has extensive street creds in this area, having parlayed his own childhood obsession with electronics and machinery into a string of successful careers—designing guitars for the band KISS, working with Pink Floyd’s sound company, designing electronic games, and finally founding his own business repairing and restoring European cars.
Never preachy or hard-line, each piece of advice—from dealing with noise sensitivity to why Aspergians can make good emergency responders—is clearly rooted in Robison’s own wide experience, and presented with his trademark dark humour and eccentricity: his chapter on bullying, for example, has both a good, succinct list of strategies and a pants-peeingly funny anecdote involving needle-nose pliers and a spitballing lunkhead named Don.
I did have a few quibbles with this book, most of them minor: the chapter on fears, “What are you afraid of?”, has no discernible lesson or point. And the chapter entitled “A Day at the Races” falls flat because it’s not revealed till the end that (spoiler alert) the racing beasts are pigs—it’s unclear whether this is Aspergian mind-blindness at work (presuming the reader knows what you know) or just sloppy editing.
More problematic is the short shrift given the chapter on brain plasticity; given the immense interest in this subject at the moment (and given that the entire book is ostensibly about “rewiring” the Aspergian brain) this section seems oddly cursory at just five pages and seems like an afterthought.
There could also be more about Asperger’s in girls, since the symptoms can be quite different in females. To be fair, Robison can only speak from his personal experience as a male, but it would have been helpful to see perhaps a quick chapter on the subject, as well as a sub-section in the otherwise excellent appendix and resource list at the end.
But overall, Be Different is a superbly written, unapologetic assertion that Asperger’s, far from being a disaster, is simply one more way of being in the world. Whether you are blessed with “standard” or “nonstandard” wiring, Be Different is an affectionate and ferocious anthem, celebrating the ways we are each unique, and the ways we are the same.
Full Title: Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers
Author: John Elder Robison
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Hardcover: 286 pages
Price: $32.95 CDN