“Be yourself… March to your own drummer… Think different.” That is the message of advocate and New York Times best-selling author John Elder Robison, who recently appeared at The Y.A.L.E. School’s Cherry Hill campus to meet with students.
Robison, whose books include the memoir “Look Me In The Eye” and his latest work, “Be Different: Adventures of a Free Range Aspergian” came to New Jersey as part of two events sponsored by The Y.A.L.E. School: one for the public held in cooperation with Camden County College’s Center for Civic Leadership and Responsibility and PACT, and a second event for students at The Y.A.L.E. School’s Cherry Hill campus.
During the presentation at Camden County College, Robison spoke to an engrossed audience of people of all ages and backgrounds about his unique life and experiences as an individual with Asperger’s. Later, he signed copies of his books, and spoke with the guests.
The following morning, Robison addressed a packed auditorium of Y.A.L.E. students and staff members, sharing anecdotes about his personal journey. He offered advice and guidance to our young “Aspergians” about how to cope with being different, use their unique talents and interests to succeed in life, and embrace their eccentricities. He offered an insider’s perspective on growing up a “geek,” and eventually finding his place within the community and raising a family along the way (Robison is the father of a college-aged son who is on the spectrum).
Later that morning, Robison met with 12 students from our Car Club (one of Y.A.L.E’s social skills clubs). He talked with them about his car restoration business, describing his love of classic Range Rovers and of his first car, a VW Beetle he named “The Pig Maimer.” He shared stories of repairing engines, restoring vintage Porsches, and showed them photographs from his travels. Students listened intently to Robison’s advice to follow their interests and to work hard at finding their niche. They asked many questions and were encouraged by his straightforward and pragmatic belief that one can define success in many different ways.
Robison followed an unusual path to prosperity as an entrepreneur, author, musician, mechanic, sound engineer, electronics designer, adjunct professor and public speaker. Robison has alternately designed and built special-effects guitars for and toured with the rock band KISS, pioneered concert sound equipment for Pink Floyd, and designed early electronic games and video game systems for Milton Bradley. Recently, he joined the science and treatment boards of Autism Speaks and is an active participant on Wrong Planet, an online community for people with Asperger’s. He also owns and operates a busy vintage automobile restoration and detailing shop in his hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts.
Parents are often dismayed by the idea that their children with Asperger’s may not follow a traditional road of school, college, career, marriage, family. Robison’s work with our students helped them to realize that their differences can empower them to live the lives they wish to lead and be happy, even if it takes them longer to reach that destination.
“I loved that he was so genuine and honest,” said Stephanie Slater, principal of the Y.A.L.E. Cherry Hill Upper School. “He was very practical and didn’t sugarcoat his words with our students. He urged our kids to be realistic about their futures and not to use their Asperger’s as an excuse to avoid challenging themselves.”
Robison recommends “Aspergians” find real-world applications for their individual interests, make positive connections with like-minded peers, learn when to keep quiet and blend in when necessary, and practice and perfect their talents no matter what they may be.
“Y.A.L.E. School is committed to helping our students use self-determination and self-advocacy to realize their full potential,” said Y.A.L.E. Standard 9 Concentration coordinator Margaret Chapman, who helped organize both events.
“We were thrilled to welcome John to our campus to meet with our kids and talk to them about the value of ‘being different,’” added Chapman. “John’s message is about learning to get along in the world and find a niche, without leaving behind the strengths, insights and perspectives that come with Asperger’s. It is a very powerful message. He is a great mentor for our students.”