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Author to speak about life with Asperger's during Forum presentation

RELEASED: April 6, 2010

John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison

EAU CLAIRE — John Elder Robison, author of a bestselling memoir about growing up with a high-functioning form of autism, will speak April 20 at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The Forum will present his address, "Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's," at 7:30 p.m. in Zorn Arena.

When he was three or four years old, Robison realized that he was different from other people. He was unable to make eye contact with other children. As a teenager his odd habits included blurting out non sequiturs, obsessively dismantling radios, and digging five-foot holes and sticking his younger brother into them. Labeled a "social deviant," Robison got little help from his mother, who conversed with light fixtures, or his father, who spent his evenings pickling himself in sherry.

"I was always a problem child — often sad, a loner, unable to make friends," Robison says. "My parents sent me to a number of different schools, and I saw a number of different therapists, but none of them had the answers."

Robison grew up with Asperger's syndrome at a time when the diagnosis did not exist. The developmental disorder is named for Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who in 1944 described children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills and empathy with their peers. They showed little ability to form friendships and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics. Asperger himself is thought to have had Asperger's syndrome. The disorder finally entered the lexicon in 1992, when it was included in the diagnostic manual of the World Health Organization.

"It is one of the most intriguing labels in psychiatry," wrote The New York Times. "Children with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, are socially awkward and often physically clumsy, but many are verbal prodigies, speaking in complex sentences at early ages, reading newspapers fluently by age 5 or 6 and acquiring expertise in some preferred topic — stegosaurs, clipper ships, Interstate highways — that will astonish adults and bore their playmates to tears."

Robison learned the name of his condition in 1996, at age 40, when he was finally diagnosed by an insightful therapist. By then Robison's savant-like insight into machines and electronics had led him to jobs designing special-effects guitars and creating toys for Milton Bradley. He became a husband and a father, and founded a multimillion-dollar business repairing and restoring European cars. Understanding that he had a form of autism called Asperger's syndrome transformed the way Robison saw himself — and the world.

After his father's death, Robison wrote a memoir, the New York Times bestseller "Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's" (2007). He chronicles how he found his way in the world without understanding why he was so different, in a book that is rich with clues to spotting autism in children and harnessing the best from those already diagnosed. The book also provides a reverse angle on the younger brother Robison left at the mercy of their parents — the boy who would later change his name to Augusten Burroughs and write the bestselling memoir "Running with Scissors."

"In 'Look Me in the Eye,' John Elder Robison describes a painfully lonely childhood and an ability to look at a circuit design and imagine how it will transform sound — a talent he used to invent audio effects and exploding guitars for the rock band Kiss," wrote The New York Times. "Not all people with Asperger's have such extraordinary abilities, and some who do are so crippled by anxiety and social limitations that they cannot hold down a job or live on their own."

Robison is a natural storyteller who has been applauded by thousands — the general public, teachers, mental health workers — for his on-stage compassion and his insistence that anyone can lead successful lives according to gifts, not limitations. Asperger's is not a disease that needs curing; it is a way of experiencing life that requires understanding and encouragement from others. Robison argues that people develop throughout their lives and that it is never too late to hope for or expect change.

Robison's Forum presentation comes at a time when the definition of Asperger's syndrome is under scrutiny. Experts recommend removing it from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to be issued in May 2013. If the change is approved by editors and consultants, psychiatry's diagnostic manual will fold Asperger's into a single broad diagnosis that encompasses autism's entire range, from high-functioning to highly disabling. The change is likely to be controversial, affecting health insurers, schools, state agencies and researchers, as well as people with the disorder.

Robison's presentation will be interpreted for the deaf and hard of hearing. His lecture will be followed by a question-and-answer session and an informal reception.

Tickets for The Forum are $8 for the public, $6 for those 62 and older and UW System or Chippewa Valley Technical College faculty and staff, and $4 for those 17 and younger and UW System or CVTC students. Student tickets are half-price ($2) until the day of the event; on the day of the event, students must pay the full student ticket price.

Tickets are available at the Service Center in the east lobby of Davies Center and will be sold at the door. Patrons also may charge their tickets to MasterCard, Visa or Discover when ordering by phone. Call 715-836-3727 or, outside the immediate Eau Claire area, call toll-free 800-949-UWEC. A $3 handling fee will be added to all telephone charge orders.

Wisconsin Public Radio, Community Television and WHYS Radio have contributed generous promotional support for The Forum. The Forum is also funded in part by Visit Eau Claire ... The Unexpected Wisconsin. Best Western Trail Lodge Hotel & Suites (715-838-9989), 3340 Mondovi Road, is The Forum's exclusive accommodations partner.

Funded by the students of UW-Eau Claire, The Forum is administered by the Activities and Programs office.

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JS/DW

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