a conversation with John Elder Robison

Received via email, March 21, 2008:
“I understand you’re using my book in your course this semester. May I ask how you’re using it? Colleges all over are adopting my book for a wide range of classes, and I try and see how it’s used.
If it’s a major part of a class, perhaps I could stop by and talk to your students.
Best wishes
John Elder Robison”

Hi John,
I am glad you contacted me.
How did you find out that I’m using your book?!
I like the idea of you coming to the class. I need to think about how and when. The course is “group dynamics” – we are studying ourselves going through stages of group development, which means self-reflection and interpersonal communication skills are crucial. The Aspergian way of stating the obvious (i.e., what you observe, think, and feel) is a trait that I admire and find immeasurably useful in groups who seek to understand relationships among themselves (say, within the group of students and me in this course) and between them/ourselves and others (e.g., people in other classes at UMass; people who aren’t in college; or people in college in other countries).
The first idea that comes to my mind – if this seems good to you? – is to have you read and respond to some of the public conversation that I’ve structured through the use of weblogs (I have one for teaching, and each student has created one for certain assignments). If that goes well, then you could come to the class in person…
What do you think?

“If your students have blogs on this tell me where they are and I’ll look.”

I wrote about your book for the first time today, in the blog I use for teaching. Students will probably not do their homework and respond until next Sunday or Monday, but there are many links to their work/writing so far if you want to get a sense of how things are developing: Why are you writing sideways?

Hi John,
A friend read the same link I sent you and said it is “thick.” I know. The links to student blogs are way at the end, when I’m writing about the various cultural terms that they analyzed. (Or you can wait until they post replies to that blogpost and then follow the links.)
Class was not well attended yesterday (first day after spring break) but half-a-dozen students had read your book completely and others were a third of the way into it. They really wanted to talk about it! Obviously they benefited and were excited. I will post some pictures from notes I wrote on the board and send you that link when it’s ready.

Your use of my book in this context is unlike any other application I’ve seen to date. And that’s interesting to me. And I do agree, the blog entry is “thick.”
I have talked to parents, people on the autism spectrum, special ed teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, and many other sorts of specialists.
You, however, stand distinctly apart from all those folks.
You wrote:
Robison’s tendency was to answer “with whatever I had been thinking.” This is not so different, in my mind, from people who simply say the first thing that comes to mind. Neither response involves any anticipation – there is no forward-in-time quality of considering how the thing one says might lead to a certain kind of outcome, be it as mundane as a polite social interaction or as intense as a long-term relationship. And then, even within the range of possible responses that one might choose among, hoping that they might lead to the outcome you want (or at least one that you dimly perceive or otherwise don’t outright dislike), you can still get it wrong.
To me, the interesting phrase there is: Neither response involves any anticipation
To have anticipation, I think one must have a grasp of what the autism shrinks call Theory of Mind, or the recognition that other people have their own unique thoughts.
I am very focused, and very driven. In many cases, I enter into exchanges with other people with some goal in mind. That goal may be to buy, sell, learn, teach, etc. It could be almost anything. However, even though I may have such a goal clearly in mind, I may still answer with whatever I am thinking about.
For me, there may not be a clear and strong connection between the stream of words I address to a person, and my overarching goal in the ongoing interaction with that person. Yes, while that response is happening, I still retain an anticipation; an overall goal for my dealing with the person. It’s just that the actual spoken words may not take me closer to the goal; indeed, they may take me farther away.
As a child, that was a nearly insurmountable problem as I described in the book. As an articulate and mentally agile adult, it’s usually something I can recover from in the ongoing stream of conversation.
I see new twists to this stuff every day. Very interesting.
Best wishes

18 thoughts on “a conversation with John Elder Robison”

  1. John, you are absolutely right. I overstated the case of “no anticipation,” although we may be trying to use the word to refer to two different things?
    I think of it as people being on their own trajectories, always moving forward along a certain path of momentum. This seems to be what you are describing as being “very focused, and very driven.” You have a goal in mind that you anticipate achieving.
    Now, I’d say not everyone is as focused as you are, although regardless of degree of intentionality everyone is still following along on their own path: we could probably call it a stream-of-consciousness, the workings of their own mind.
    It seems to me – and I am glad to know I can trust you to correct me if I’m wrong! – that what you describe as a problem of saying something that may not be in tune with the actual goal you wish to achieve with that other individual, is a description of the basic challenge of communication that every one deals with all the time. How many times must I admit that the actual words I use may take me further away from what I want?! Too many to count, that’s for sure. :-/
    Communication is always an act of coordination. For instance, your description of how adults interfered with you learning some of the skills you needed because they would simply follow you wherever your mind went, shows how habits of misunderstanding are developed. Other kids simply rejecting you for not cooperating as they thought you should according to their comfort/familiarity with practices (or habits, or rituals) of communication shows their conditioning into particular limited ways of creating relationship.
    You take an incredible amount of responsibility for your interpersonal communication behaviors, in effect compensating for what other people do not know or cannot perceive. You make up the difference in a gap that everyone feels between me/myself and others; and you do it in ways and at times that many people simply avoid because (I think) of the uncertainties associated with exploring those gaps.
    Coming around to another kind of anticipation, then, is that the anticipation I mean is of a joint kind. Rather than individually-based, it is relational and cooperative with the goals of both persons in mind. It is the anticipation of a social formation, of future interactions with particular qualities and attributes. I find many people fail to consider this interrelational dimension when they simply say the first thing that comes to mind. I think such a “failure to anticipate” applies whether or not it is congruent with immediately previous thoughts or in some kind of alignment with personal or professional goals. Such utterances are a simple continuation along one’s own path, instead of a responsive alteration of momentum that recognizes and incorporates the other, right now.
    Based on this, it seems to me that the important skill that you model is how to correct or repair such relatively routine glitches in interpersonal communication.
    I am wondering, as I type this, if you find it easier to make these repairs in text-based form (like email or blogging) or in speech? I know that I appreciate the time that writing allows for me to edit and clarify what I mean…I can be a bit more thoughtful about whether what I’m saying will align with my goals and contribute to the kind of future relationships I want. (Which is not a guarantee that they will! But at least I can try…)

  2. Students from the course on Group Dynamics will soon be posting comments. They have been asked to notice the following passage, in particular:
    “I am very focused, and very driven. In many cases, I enter into exchanges with other people with some goal in mind. That goal may be to buy, sell, learn, teach, etc. It could be almost anything. However, even though I may have such a goal clearly in mind, I may still answer with whatever I am thinking about.
    “For me, there may not be a clear and strong connection between the stream of words I address to a person, and my overarching goal in the ongoing interaction with that person. Yes, while that response is happening, I still retain an anticipation; an overall goal for my dealing with the person. It’s just that the actual spoken words may not take me closer to the goal; indeed, they may take me farther away.”
    After reading all of the dialogue (above), respond with your view regarding how John’s experience (of not always saying things in line with the goals he seeks to achieve) is similar to or different from your own experiences of communicating with others to achieve things that are important to you. Create a link to what you just wrote in your own blog (tie it in somehow). Finally, if John was to come to our class, can you imagine a way that we could have a conversation that would work to benefit both his goals and ours? Please explain. 🙂
    (If you are interested, here are the full details of their assignment:

  3. The two comments or blurbs taken out of John’s book seem like things that face people without this disability on a regular basis. Communication is one of the easiest things to mess up, how many times to hear people apologizing for their lack of communication, or misunderstanding? I find myself in a pickle between either being too blunt and saying exactly what is on my mind, or being to dismissive in conversations because I don’t want to offend anyone, these two situations often divert me from achieving my original goal. It depends on who the conversation is with, and how much patience I have for the whole communication process that day. The older I become I find myself worrying less and less about offending people and focusing more on saying what it is I have to say regardless of the consequences. This could be a bad thing, I haven’t decided yet. I guess achieving a goal while having a conversation would be the universal standard for communication with another , while maintaining eye contact is a universal symbol of respect.

  4. MY BLOG
    We all have goals. I have so many plans, I cannot keep up with basically any of them. It is quite sad actually. In regards to doing or saying things, that do not necessarily bring you closer to your goal, we see this in class every day. In Can We Articulate the frames…, I speak of how we have this odd focus on how the idea of making a Umass culture wiki would be stupid, based upon the idea that no one will see it. That is not our goal. Our goal is to create something AS A CLASS. Not reach out to others. This idea is just adding extra strain on our goal that is unnecessary. I understand the worry, and it is fine to address the issue a bit, but when it comes down to it, we have a goal to reach as a group and we should do so.

  5. All throughout my life, I’ve said some things that have significantly hurt my chances of conveying what I’m attempting to convey. Especially through my increased interest in the political sphere, I started realizing that the words you say are very important in shaping the way others perceive you, and can either help you tremendously or hurt you tremendously. I took a public speaking class last semester, and the biggest thing I took away from that class was that you have to practice speaking numerous times before going in front of a public audience, because if you don’t, even if you have the most brilliant and inspiring things to say in the world, there’s a substantial chance you will leave something out or say something the wrong way and in turn, rub someone the wrong way. Just as Robison had to practice his communication skills throughout his lifetime, we all need to do the same thing. Communicating what you feel and what you want to achieve does not come naturally. Sure, you can say what you feel and what you want to achieve, but that is not the same as communicating it. Communicating something makes it possible for your audience to feel the same feelings you feel about what you are trying to communicate. And in order to do this, it takes a lot of practice and dedication. I’ve always had a problem with mumbling. The only way I could get through it was by practicing speaking clearly. I know that when I mumble, it takes a lot of the “pep” out of my speeches, and may allow people to form an opinion of me that I am boring and dull. Practicing communication skills is absolutely necessary to better working in a group and getting people to join a common cause.

  6. “Steph,
    Your use of my book in this context is unlike any other application I’ve seen to date.
    Gee…sounds like everything related to this class as well. I personally would love to have John stop by in class and speak to us. I know we are limited on time in this class but we have 3 hours per class. Most classes per week are 2.5 hours. So why not take 30 minutes and allow John to come and talk to us. I think it would be awesome to have the author of the book we are reading come talk to us about his motives behind writing the book, what he wanted to get out of writing this book, and especially what he thinks of our use of it in this class.

  7. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about interpersonal relationships and communication. Until now these musings haven’t really had a place in our class (and its discussions) but here I think they might. In a lot of ways social interaction is like a game. People have goals (as John mentions) be they simply to have a pleasant interaction (this concept itself warrants analysis &emdash; but not here), a deep connection, or a more tangible goal (John mentions buying/selling). When someone asks us “how are you?” we reply “fine” as a convention &emdash; this means either “I am actually fine.” OR “We are not close enough for me to tell you how I really feel, so in order to play correctly and move the conversation forward in a comfortable way I will say that I am fine.” The next step in the game is to ask “And how are you?” People are all highly manipulative (with varying levels of success). I don’t mean manipulative in a cruel or even negative way. Any time we have a goal (which we all nearly always do, right?) any action we take is most often conscious of wanting to manipulate the situation towards achieving that goal. This is why it’s so striking (and interesting) when someone doesn’t “play by the rules.” In the book one passage stands out in its description of this process:
    I suddenly realized that when a kid said, ‘Look at my Tonka truck,’ he expected an answer that made sense in the context of what he had said.
    Robinson had a goal as a child&emdash; to make friends and have pleasant interactions with other children, but he was unable to achieve this goal (manipulate it into existence) until he learned the rules of the game. Many of us take for granted knowing the rules. But when did we learn them? And how?
    I theorize that, though many of us share a similar view of the rules, we’re actually all playing by slightly different ones, and, since we all have different goals, we’re all playing a different game. The difference between my communicative style and instincts and John’s are striking and yet the existence of DIFFERENCE is not exclusive to people on the autism spectrum. This difference exists between all of us &emdash; and maybe accounts for a great deal of flawed and failed attempts at communication. Could understanding these differences &emdash; isolating them, analyzing them &emdash; help us communicate better as a group? (and as individuals in the world at large?)
    We’re running low on time, but here’s the link to my blog. I hope to express some of these ideas more extensively and clearly there. http://vertebralsilence.wordpress.com/

  8. John’s experience of not always being able to further his conversation by means of communication is very similar to some of my own experiences. While reading John’s book it was evident that sometimes his way of communication would work to his benefit (when he was explaining car problems to his customers) and when they would work to hinder his goals (when he was trying to make childhood friends).
    To tie this in with my own experiences of “communicating gone wrong”, it reminds me of going to an interview or getting into an argument. Both of these experiences require thinking on your feet and coming up with quick responses. I think these are the instances in my life where I think about what I how what I said my have not been what I was trying to “accomplish” as John put it, “actual spoken words may not take me closer to the goal; indeed, they may take me farther away”
    This is similar to the cover of John’s book. This act of communication can elicit many different assumptions. In my blog post,
    I talked about the different assumptions that people have about the same “act.”
    If John were to come to class I think it would be very beneficial to us. I think that we could come up with questions we had about the book and about Aspergers and see if we are on the same page. For me it would be interesting to see the difference between the way he writes and the way he acts in person. I know after reading his book I have my own ideas of what John is like in person and I think it would be interesting to have an inclass dialogue where we could talk about the book and about group dynamics.

  9. This passage can relate to our group dynamics class and our decisions towards creating our wiki page. Many people went into discussion about the page thinking about the end goal &emdash; making a decision and then creating the page. People even had what they wanted the page to be, “a umass survival guide,” or, “a course description page” and went into this discourse with their own opinion, maybe not as open to other ideas. I know I did this when I had my idea of the wiki page. It is easy to get lost in conversation if you do not have an already established itinerary, or goal in mind. And it is easy to sway your opinion towards other peoples if you do not have this established opinion.

  10. I think everyone struggles with communication on some level. Although we might all speak the same language, that by no means we use it to the best of our intentions at any time. I’m sure we have all felt those “forehead slapping” moments when we think to ourselves, “Why the hell did I say that?” after a conversation, or felt that feeling hours, even days later. Of course these challenges are slightly harder for those with certain conditions, and are hard to compare. In essence, I think we all have a sense of that feeling that we haven’t communicated to the best of our ability, and even hindered ourselves in the process.

  11. I have had similar experiences as John-where I am giving a speech or talking in front of a class and I have a certain goal of what I want my audience to take away from what I am saying. Sometime I can ramble and what I say just falls out of my mouth. Sometimes I reach my goal and other times I may confuse my audience. This ties into “Eye Contact” when I say that everyone has different frames and ways of seeing a situation. When I start to engage in a conversation or speech I may say things that people in my audience may not understand or know how to make sense of it. I find it so much easier to sit down at my laptop and type out how I feel. I even find it easier than sitting down with my diary. I have formed some type of relationship where my fingers just fly across the keyboard and my thoughts flow from my head through my fingertips. Communication can be a hard process. So many times people misunderstand you. I can’t imagine what the process would be like with a disability. There are so many times when I am wondering what my cousin is thinking and what is going on in his head. Actually I guess I do that with everyone.
    Eye Contact

  12. Communicating with other people is almost as hard as growing up in general. Living with or without Asperger’s syndrome, I think people sometimes have a hard time getting across what they really want to say, meant to say, or perhaps didn’t mean to say. When John says, “…even though I may have such a goal clearly in mind, I may still answer with whatever I am thinking about.” I can directly agree. I find myself sometimes just saying what I am thinking out loud, even if it is totally out of context. Other times, I am so eager to get to a goal that I say what I think others would like to hear. I think both of these situations are just part of human communication, with or without an impairment.
    Also, along the lines of John making a visit to our classroom- I think this a great idea! I feel as though he has overcome a lot, and has had to make many goals for himself. Perhaps he can give us some insight on how to push ourselves to get to our ultimate goal… and then get this wiki site started… hint hint!
    When you talk to me

  13. John’s experience of not always saying thiings in line with the goals he seeks to achieve is similar to my own experiences of communicating with others to achieve things that are important to me. It is very apparent that there is a lot of confusion with communicating with others because everyone has there own opinions and ways of communicating which are often misinterpreted by others. Communicating is practiced and an important quality for everyone but it is not to say that everyone is good at it. Eye contact, and the meaning behind it, is similar to communicating because the importance of it seems to be well known and can be cosidered to have a universal meaning.
    Here is a brief idea of my personal experience with eye contact and what I believe it represents. I think it goes along with John’s experience with communicating and the not always accomplished, but definite need for communicating, in a way that can be understood by most people and eye contact seems to fall into the importance of communication.

  14. Successful communication is extremely difficult getting someone else to understand what you are saying is no easy feat. I feel the reason communication is difficult is not only do you have to express what you feel, but you also have to do it in a way someone else understands. I think communication is spoken about a lot in Look me in the eye

  15. Now and then, we all suffer from “communication breakdown.” I can think of numerous scenarios when my ability to communicate in accordance with my goals has been inhibited. For example, when I am was on the phone trying to get back the money Bank of America stole from me I had to be very careful to structure the conversation perfectly as to not result in the representative saying “sorry, there isn’t much we can do.” Ultimately, this test in communication proved too much for me and I never got my money back. I also have the tendency just to communicate in a stream of consciousness, perhaps similar to the way John says he states what is on his mind at that moment. Because of this making arguments, especially in front of large audiences, can be very difficult. I need to be very careful to keep structured and not ramble. I face similar difficulties when writing, and as a result writing takes me quite a bit of time. I am always worried I have neglected something. It happens less frequently now, but I used to have the tendency to “dig myself a hole,” as they say. This is a situation all people experience at one point or another. In these situations, our words clearly work against our intentions.
    When thinking about what we could do if John were to come a class of ours, the first thing that came to mind were “fishbowls.” Perhaps John could be a “fish?” If his goal was to learn about how we have used his book in our class, we could have a discussion about how we have changed or thought more closely about how we communicate when negotiating our project. Also, wouldn’t it be great if John were to join us in a discussion about what direction our Wiki will take? Talk about a fresh perspective! This might be asking a lot =).
    In my blog I wrote about how our range of interpretations of the title of John’s memoir demonstrates how frames shape understanding.

  16. I often find myself in the same predicament. I don’t filter what I am thinking, people don’t react as I would like, and it takes me further away from my end goal. So I look back and wonder how/if I should of approached the situation.
    The thing is often times people’s reactions have nothing to do with the actual event but rather their own biases based on their own distorted view of reality is. Reality occurs out there, what we make of it occurs in the mind.
    The question I often ask myself is where do I draw the line trying to think for others and act accordingly to that and where do I just say what’s on my mind.

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