Monday, October 29, 2007

Peace and quiet in the woods, lawn care, and books

Quite a few readers agreed with my last post, about the woods and nature being calming. I have always felt that way. The simple sounds of the outdoors – the wind, the crickets, the gurgle of a stream – all are very peaceful and soothing to me. And to other folks too, it seems.

Why do you think nature is soothing? I have part of the answer, I think . . . the sights and sounds we find soothing all rise and fall very gradually. Wind rustling the trees is a smooth, gentle sound. We jump in alarm is a branch snaps with a sharp “crack” but the wind itself is peaceful because it rises and falls slowly.

The same is true of stream sounds, and even the gradual rising of the sun and moon outdoors. All are peaceful because they happen slowly and smoothly.

The sound of crickets is peaceful because it’s a constant drone. We’d be startled if the noise stopped suddenly.

Humans have evolved over tens of thousands of years alongside those sights, sounds, and smells. They are natural and comfortable to us. Sounds of metal, the clangs and bangs of our industrial world - those are not what we evolved with, and they are often unsettling.

That sounds reasonable, no? But why then is music soothing? It 's not something we evolved hearing. There is no natural sound like a guitar or a trumpet. That's an interesting question.

Why else might we find nature peaceful?

Moving away from peace and quiet, let us consider for a moment the dynamics of mechanized lawn care and the removal of dead leaves, a task many of us face every fall. . . .

The story of machine-based leaf removal starts with the small gas engine, the power plant that drives it all. One can say many things about these machines, but today’s salient fact is this: most small engines (and large ones too, for that matter) spin in a clockwise direction when viewed from the front or top.

When mounted on a riding lawn mower, the engine will therefore usually spin the mower blades in a clockwise direction, as seen from above. If the mower exhausts the cuttings on the side, it typically discharges to the right because clockwise spinning blades will exhaust clippings right and back or left and forward, and you don’t normally want your clippings sprayed forward.

So right and back is, like, one of the secret rules of lawnmower design. Count on an Aspergian to have knowledge like this close at hand.

Knowing this essential fact, we can develop a yard cleanup strategy. Read on to see how I made use of this essential fact of riding mowers.

On my property, my house is surrounded by lawn, which is in turn surrounded by woods. The job I face every October is the cleanup of almost two acres of leaf covered grass.

I used to clear my leaves by dragging a big gas powered vacuum around the lawn and collecting them in bags which I dumped in the woods. That kept the lawn looking good, but I ended up with piles in places where I heaped the leaves. The piles were unsightly, and the nutrient value of the leaves was lost to the woods. There had to be a better way, I thought.

This year, I began cutting the lawn by riding my mower in counterclockwise circles around the house. The result: cuttings are continually blown to the right, to be recut and tossed again as the tractor spirals out from the house. Whatever is left on the final pass is blown evenly into the woods.

By spiral cutting the leaves are chopped to invisibility and recycled into the lawn, and the remaining debris is blown off the edge on the last pass. There’s no raking or cleanup, and the nutrient value of the leaves finds its way into the lawn, not the woods. And there’s no longer a need for a vacuum.

Pretty slick, eh?

The same trick applies to cutting grass. A counterclockwise spiral cut will leave the least visible debris and recycle the maximum amount of clippings.

Some readers from the city will find that story completely nonsensical. There are significant differences between city dwellers and folks who live in the country. Consider, for example, this list of items that a middle age male would consider essential:

City dweller:
Cashmere overcoat and Gucci loafers
Mercedes S430
Platinum American Express card
One perfectly groomed Shih Tzu

Country dweller:
Carhart coveralls and good weatherproof boots
Ford F350 pickup
Remington pump shotgun
Four beagles under the porch

It’s pretty clear from those lists which males will find a use for the John Deere riding mower, and who will find my spiral cut advice useful. My apologies for boring the rest of you.

Before I go, I’ll share a list of books I read and enjoyed last week. Some of you may find the list amusing; others with similar books in their possession may see a marketing opportunity:

The Forgotten Five Hundred – a story about the dramatic rescue of downed American bomber crews from WWII Yugoslavia

The Earthmover Encyclopedia – an enthusiast’s guide to heavy equipment of the world

Gonzo – the life of Hunter S Thompson

Soul Catcher – a story about a fugitive slave catcher in the years before the war

And right now, I am reading:

America’s Fighting Admirals, a story of WWII leadership and strategy

And if you're in the Pioneer Valley . . . . come see me this Thursday at 7 at the Suffield Library. If you're in greater Boston, I'll be at Umass Lowell with my brother, Friday at 7:30.

The Lowell event is part of the Concord Festival of Authors, which is going on all week. The full schedule is here:

My brother and I will be at Comley-Lane Theater, Mahoney Hall, UMass Lowell. That's at 870 Broadyway.

If you're somewhere else, you'll just have to wait a bit. Check the schedule, over on the right.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Audience questions, and the Treatment Online Interview

I did an interview with the folks at the Treatment Online website. It's online here:

And in other news . . . .

Last night I spoke at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. We had a good crowd, 75 people or so, and two questions from the audience stood out. I'd like to repeat them here:

A fellow in the front asked, "Are there places in the world where Aspergians are treated better?"

As it happens, there is such a place: Australia. For some reason, the Australians have a very high level of awareness when it comes to Asperger's and autism issues. It's probably no coincidence that Tony Attwood, one of the leading "Asperger doctors" is from down there.

Here's a summary of one of the radio programs I've done on ABC Australia:

What can we learn from the Australians? Can their teachers and mental health people show us something?

And the second question was, "My Aspergian grandson comes to our farm and he seems a lot better when he's outdoors as opposed to being in the city. What do you think about that?"

I think the same thing is true for me. I find the constant background noise, the lights, the people, the smells of a city distracting and stressful. I do find it relaxing to be in nature where it's simple . . . just trees and grass, simple sounds (water, wind, rain), old familiar smells (dirt, plants) . . . I love being outside and I think it is very theraputic for folks like me.

So I have a question for my Aspergian and autistic readers . . . do you find it peaceful to be in nature? and the reverse . . . do you find cities stressful?

The more people I meet on my book tour, the more I see that things I thought were peculiar to me are actually typical of Aspergians as a group. Neat.

I really want to thank all of you who come to see me at these readings. As much as you come to see me, I go to see you, to hear your stories and listen to your insights. Thank you all for coming.

. . . . And there's more . . . .

While we're handing out links like online candy, here's an interview I did for Public Radio here in New England:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Appearance tonight, the Dutch edition of Look Me in the Eye, public radio and more

Come see me tonight at Northshire Books in Manchester, Vermont! 7PM reading and signing, and the spectacle will be the finest to be found, in all of Vermont.

I answer quite a few questions on the blog, but some things are better said verbally. That's why I'll be on Public Radio at 9AM Eastern Time on Tuesday, October 30. I'll be on Wisconsin Public Radio with Joy Cardin. You can find her online here:

Listen live on the web here: and call 1-800-642-1234 with your questions.

And in foreign news . . .

I’m pleased to announce that we’ll have a Dutch edition of Look Me in the Eye for summer 2008. It’s coming from Arena,

Here’s a quote from my Dutch editor . . . .

"It's no secret that I fell in love with this book several months ago! This book is very special in so many ways: John's voice is unique, as well as his descriptions of his youth, his brother (the Varmint), his career with Kiss, Unit Two of course, and how he copes with Asperger's. LOOK ME IN THE EYE was an eye opener for me, and it still is. We are . . . delighted to add John Elder Robison to our list, where we will publish his book as one of our main titles for Summer 2008.

There have been quite a few novels about Asperger's recently, but what makes this book special is the fact that it is NOT fiction, but an inspiring book which makes you laugh and cry at the same time. As I wrote in my original letter: a very impressive book!"

Shortly after getting the news about the Dutch edition, I learned that we've also got a Brazilian publisher, for a spring 2009 release. More on that later, from Larousse Do Brasil.

Radio and relativity

Last night I did a live radio show in Tasmania, about as far as it’s possible to get (on Earth) from Massachusetts. My book has been Random House Australia’s top selling non fiction title for a month now, since it went on sale Down Under.

I’ve done most of my interviews on ABC radio, the Australian Broadcasting Company. They have stations scattered over the huge expanse of Australia, and they reach over the water too. After doing Australian shows I’ve gotten email from listeners in India, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands.

Last night’s show took calls from listeners, which was kind of neat. I talked to people in Hobart, Tasmania (the bottom of Tasmania, which is under the Australian continent) as if they were right across town.

The only thing that gave the distance away to me – and I doubt if the radio audience noticed – was the 2/10 second lag between each of us speaking. You see, light (and radio waves) travels about 186,000 miles per second. The Australian caller’s words went across Tasmania on land lines, then up a radio link to a satellite, which passed the signal to another satellite and another until an earth station here in New England picked the signal out of space and put it back into a land line to me. That signal traveled 15,000 miles to get here, and my answer traveled the same distance to get back.

It makes for small but perceptible pauses in conversation. Otherwise, talking to an Australian is about the same as talking to the Guys from The Floyd, or a Ludlovian or a Montagoonian, back home. Read the book if you don’t know what those are.

It’s kind of neat, realizing that your conversation is taking place over such a vast distance that you can actually HEAR the speed of light/speed of radio waves.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, Look Me in the Eye continues to be a bestseller, and we keep adding media appearances and speaking engagements. I’ll be at Northshire Books in Manchester, Vermont tomorrow evening, and I’ll be staying at the Equinox.

When my son was little, I used to take him to the Equinox. I showed him the door where Gorko, a Flying Lizard, entered and exited our world from the Great Service Road. Outside behind the Equinox there is a pipe that goes deep underground. Cubby and I would listen at the pipe, alert for sounds of Dragons far below.

We also ate Sunday brunch there. They have a good brunch.

Next Thursday, I’ll be at the Suffield Library, in Suffield, CT. Cubby and I never went there when he was small. We never made it past the Conrail train yard, ten miles north. He’s seventeen now, but he still remembers driving a freight train when he was five.

The bear was nowhere to be seen this morning. I presume he’s found a better home, across the street in Amherst Woods. One of the bloggers who wrote me last night actually LIVES in Amherst Woods, to my surprise. We’ll have to see if she reports any bear sightings today.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


A few weeks ago I wrote about a bear that visited the yard. He wandered off, and we didn’t get to speak.

Yesterday when I drove into the street to go to work, I was stopped by a large black bear sitting in the middle of the road, posed like a piece of Native American sculpture. I stopped about six feet from him and he slowly got to his feet and wandered up to check out the Land Rover. I moved forward to meet him nose to nose, and he backed up and bounded into the woods across the street.

Today, I got up at dawn and fired up the little John Deere yard tractor to remove the leaves that are falling. As I rounded the corner of the house, I encountered ANOTHER large bear. The day before, I had the advantage as the Land Rover was considerably larger than the bear. Today, the bear and the tractor appeared evenly matched.

I decided to speak with the bear and I went inside to get the shotgun. I believe in being non-violent, but there is no substitute for slugs when sweet nothings whispered in the bear’s ear don’t work. Especially if the bear is hungry or hung over or just plain mean.

Emerging from the house, I found the bear standing just where I’d left him. He looked at me with a steady gaze as I approached.

Bear, I said, this is not the place for you.

My birds are tame, and my dog is not breakfast.

Just over that hill, I said – pointing toward the west – there is a development called Amherst Woods, full of houses with tasty things to eat. Go do your raiding there. They are not armed or dangerous.

The bear considered my advice for a moment, and headed west. I finished removing the leaves and went to work.

When I was younger, I worked our farm tractor in the Georgia swamps with a shotgun in a scabbard on the hood. We had mostly snakes and angry gators down there, when you'd clear swampland. I hadn’t thought a shotgun was a necessary tractor accoutrement in New England, but with Global Warming, who knows?

When I returned home after work, there was no sign of the bear. I removed the leaves again, and reminded my subjects to be sure the doors to the house remained shut.

Out east, near Boston, there’s a restaurant called Legal Seafoods. It’s one of my favorite places. They have a dessert made from ice cream balls with a crunchy chocolate shell. I like them a lot.

Coincidentally, I hear the big Polar Bears up north say the opposite thing about igloos . . . a cold crunchy outside, with a warm chewy center.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A sweet children's story

Fire Lizards

Under the table in the glass blower’s shop in Shelburne Falls crouches Uudoo
He’s about three feet long, scaly, speckled green and brown
He’s got a long swishy tail, which is slowly sweeping the floor
Four stubby legs. Like an alligator, but smoother.
He’s got a rounded head, flat ears, and a few snaggle teeth sticking from his mouth.
Uudoo is a fire lizard.

He waits for his human partner George to step gently on his tail
It’s the signal for him to blow a stream of fire into the funnel
His fire goes up the pipe and onto the table, where Uudoo’s breath turns the glass red-hot
And George shapes it into vases, bowls and even glass lizards and butterflies
That he sells in craft stores in Northampton and Provincetown and Newport

The people in the stores have no idea
Of the ancient techniques and the secret processes
Such as the rare spices that color the flame and tint the glass
Uudoo’s delicate little spurts of flame will curl the whiskers on a glass kitty cat

Man and fire lizard, working together to create fine glassware
A secret kept for generations

Uudoo never blows his fire when he walks home with George
People think he’s a pet Iguana.
It’s better that way

Folks say dragons vanished thousands of years ago, if they even existed at all
Little do they know of the powerful wizards who caught them, tamed them and clipped their wings.
Powerful sorcerers bent them to their will, to work the forges and glass furnaces
Hidden from view. . . No one knows, even today

Looking in the sky . . . Little specks . . . Far away
They look like birds, but some are not
Some are dragons

* * * * *

And in other news . . . .

I will be appearing at Lighthouse Voc-Ed Center, at the Marriott, in Groton CT on Monday, March 24, 2008.

If you're an educator or mental health professional and you'd like me to come you your school district or group, contact my speaker's agent, Lauren Verge of the Lavin Agency at

If you'd like to know more about the Lighthouse event contact Katie Flynn or Kathy Green at 860-445-7626 or

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Elms College, autism, and me

In just two hours, I am headed over to Elms College to introduce their new Graduate School concentration in Asperger’s/autism. I’ll be speaking to students at 4, followed by a reception for friends of the college, mental health professionals, and local educators. I’ll also be doing a public reading and book signing in their auditorium at 7.

The Elms is a small college in Chicopee, right near Robison Service. They have been educating teachers and mental health professionals from this area for many years, and they are now about to roll out the autism program nationally.

Their courses, which will use my book (among other materials), are taught by Dr. Kathy Dyer. Dr. Dyer is well known for her work with autistic kids at the River Street Autism Program at Coltsville in Hartford, Connecticut. We’ve worked together to prepare a teacher’s guide to my book. You can download the guide from the educator’s page of my website.

Elms is preparing to offer their courses to everyone online as well as in the classrooms here in Chicopee. I am pleased to announce that I’ll be working with the Elms on two fronts: First, I’ll be talking with their students and faculty to make whatever contribution a 10th grade dropout can make to a graduate school. Second, I’ll be acting as a spokesman to bring attention to the school and its programs.

I’ll also be talking about my new scholarship initiative for The Elms.

Those of you in education know how hard it can be to return to college for graduate course work. Even when a school district pays for tuition, costs of books, course materials, and child care may put programs like ours out of reach for many. To address that concern I have founded a scholarship fund to provide living expense assistance on a case-by-case basis.

I am pleased and proud to announce that the fund is off to a great start, with six $1,000 founding donations, from me, my therapist friend TR Rosenberg, and local business leaders Wayne McCary of the Eastern States Exposition, Joe Partyka, Paul Picknelly, and Bill Wagner of Chicopee Savings Bank.

I’ll have more news soon on how any of you can donate to the Elms scholarship, or how you can apply to receive assistance as an Elms graduate student.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What's it like to sell 50,000 books? Secrets of publishing explained.

Now that my book has been on sale a little while, people have started asking questions about sales. For example, folks ask, “What’s it like to sell fifty thousand books?” Some think bigger, with, “What’s it like to sell five hundred thousand books?” I’ve never done either, but I’ve studied the process and I’d like to share some insights that I’ve gained.

I'll tell you secret about book sales and me . . . The most books I've ever sold personally at one time is EIGHT, to a lady today. We've got them on the counter at Robison Service, but for eight copies I had to go out back and break open a fresh case. Luckily the hound dogs hadn't chewed her case like they did the one last week.

Let's talk timing . . . once a reader picks up a book and heads to the register to buy it, the typical transaction takes about a minute and a half. That’s the time a customer spends standing in line, handing over the book, handing over the money or credit card, taking the receipt and finally taking the book and heading for the door.

So what does that mean?

For fifty thousand books to get sold, you (the bookseller) would stand behind the register seventy five thousand minutes. If you started selling books – one transaction at a time – on January 1, you’d hit 50,000 sometime in late August. Provided you never got sick, and never left the cash register, 8 hours a day.

It’s a boring job, but someone’s got to do it. At least, they have to do it if they want to claim they sold fifty thousand books to the public. Sounds harder than you thought, eh?

I hope that illustration makes clear that anyone who boasts of selling fifty thousand books is probably lying or at best, exaggerating, no matter what bookstore they come from. I never made that claim myself, and I never worked in a bookstore. But I watch, listen, and make notes.

There is an easy way to sell fifty thousand books . . . get a job as a national account sales rep with Random House. They sell books by the millions to the big boys . . .Wal Mart, Target, B&N, Costco. Some of those reps sell fifty thousand books in a morning, during the Christmas season.

But to a guy who peddles books one at a time, in the rough and tumble streets, that's cheating.

How about the handling of fifty thousand books? Have you ever pondered what such a book stack looks like?

Look Me in the Eye is a fairly typical hardcover book, seven by ten inches, and an inch and a half thick. No big deal – you stuff it in your bag, or backpack, or you just carry it. But that’s ONE BOOK. What happens when there’s more?

Random House packs books like mine twelve to a case. A case is ten by fourteen by eight inches, and about ten pounds. Three such cases are about the size and weight of one of the giant sacks of dog food in my garage. It’s a handful, but most people can carry three cases of books. You could do it, but if you’re like most people, you’d move my books two cases at a time.

That’s only 24 copies, though. What about the rest?

When the publisher ships books like mine to a distributor, they load them on a forklift pallet. Depending on how high they load the pallet, the can fit 480 to 720 books per pallet. You can’t carry a pallet. It weights about a quarter-ton. You move pallets short distances with pallet jacks, and long distances with forklift trucks.

You move pallets really long distances inside trailer trucks. A forty five foot trailer can carry twenty pallets of books. Loaded to the max, that’s 14,400 copies to the truckload. If you’ve got a full size pickup, you could carry a single pallet load of Look Me in the Eye in back.

So there you have it. Fifty thousand copies of my book are three and a half trailer truck loads. But that’s bulk packed. However, that’s not how books go to customers. Retail booksellers like Amazon pack books in big boxes with cushions so they don’t get damaged in shipping. And then they ship them, one and two at a time. When Amazon repacks those 50,000 copies, they swell in volume to fill ten trailer trucks, or 100 UPS trucks. That’s the magic of packaging. All to get the books to you.

50,000 books is an abstraction to most of us. One hundred UPS trucks full of book boxes is real.

And 500,000 books? We could be talking railcar loads, except books aren’t shipped by rail. That’s some serious space.

I hope you’ll keep these figures in mind, the next time someone bandies about quotes like, “fifty thousand books!”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

News from Chicago

I have been blessed with a series of wonderful reviews for Look Me in the Eye. This review, from the October 13 Chicago Tribune, stands out. It's written by Chicago psychologist David Royko, who has wonderful insight combined with personal experience of autism,0,7692247.story

It's late now. I've been working all day, getting ready for winter. Rigging the snow blower to the big farm tractor, cleaning up leaves, and spreading fall fertilizer. I'll return with more tomorrow.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Another day, another reading

Last night, I read for a home town audience at Food For Thought Books in Amherst. It was a good evening. The place was filled and the audience was lively, despite tremendous downpours and even some lightning outside.

The audience is mostly anonymous at the out-of –town gigs, but last night’s crowd was full of familiar faces. I was particularly excited to see many of the characters in the book. With all the excitement, it’s good to get some reassurance that they are still real people, and not just words on the pages . . .I’ll list a few here . . .

Bob Jeffway, my co-conspirator from Milton Bradley, arrived with his wife Celeste.
My therapist friend TR was there with his mate Laurel
My mother arrived with her friends John and Susan
Paul Zahradnik, who appears in the Winning at Basketball story, arrived with his mate.
John Fuller, the technician who got me started in electronics almost 40 years ago, arrived.

There were also people from the past . . . two girls from my fourth grade class in Hadley came to the reading, with a class photo of all of us. Remarkable. I hope they send me a copy.

Mister Spock – whom I cite as an example of a functional successful Aspergian – did not come, but his photo representative did. I was surprised and entertained by that.

And there were people from the blog world too. ThisMom was there, in the second row, near The Muse, whom no one has successfully photographed despite Stephen’s wishes. There may have been others lurking in the crowd, undetected.

Food for Thought is a worker owned collective (only in Amherst . . . ) Retired member Joan Barberich came back last night just to host me. She read a wonderful introduction, and I was thrilled to see her and all the other Food for Thoughters.

It was another long night, ending at 11. Luckily, this date was only three miles from home.

Next week, I’ll be at Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, and Elms College in Chicopee. I hope to see more of you there.

* * *

And lastly, some news from Down Under. My Australian publisher says Look Me in the Eye sold 23% more copies this week, and it's holding the #1 slot in non-fiction while moving from #10 to #7 overall. Go book!

And across the Atlantic, Crown has sold Italian publication rights. Stay tuned for more on the Italian edition of Look Me in the Eye.

* * *

And finally, for those of you who are in a quiet area, with just a computer for company, here's an interview I did last week with Diane Rehm at Public Radio in Washington DC . . .

Thursday, October 11, 2007

News that you can use, provided you live in Western Massachusetts

I’ll be reading and signing books in my home town tonight. 7 PM at Food For Thought Books in Amherst. Come early as this is a small store and it’s probably going to be crowded.

Those of you who have already read Look Me in the Eye may particularly appreciate this event because a number of characters from the book will be in evidence in the crowd and you may be able to pick several out. Most will be friendly.

In addition, you will be able to see and examine faculty from the Amherst School system and the University of Massachusetts, the two institutions from which I received what little education I have.

And next Thursday I’ll be appearing at Elms College in Chicopee to kick off their new graduate program in autism/Asperger’s. Elms is a teacher’s college serving Western Massachusetts. I will be speaking to students, educators, and mental health professionals in the afternoon followed by a reception and public reading and book signing at 7. All are welcome.

The Odyssey Bookstore will have books at the Elms.

The Elms appearance will be unique because we’ll talk about the school programs in addition to the book, and the need to address diversity and special needs education in our schools. I will also announce a new scholarship program in furtherance of that goal.

And that’s not all . . . .

For all you Longmeadow and Connecticut residents . . . I’ll be at the Suffield Library at the beginning of November

And I’ll be back home at Amherst Books at the beginning of December

Stay tuned for more . . .

A few of you may wonder . . . what is he really like. I know, there are skeptics in every crowd. Well, you can get a preview here. This link will take you to a full 45 minute video of me and the crowd the night Look Me in the Eye went on sale. Be sure you watch till the end because the riot at the book table and the food fight in the cafeteria were the best parts.

And if that's not enough, watch me here on Emily Rooney's Greater Boston talk show.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

News from my other job

Yesterday I arrived at my other job – operating Robison Service, our car company in Springfield – to find a letter from the General Counsel’s office of Porsche Cars , North America.

Small business owners have learned to be wary of letters from Counsels General, as they usually involve trademark violations, libel allegations, class action lawsuits, or other Bad Things.

With some trepidation, I opened it.

And I read . . . .

How the writer loved my book, especially the parts where I talked about my love for old Porsches. I also read that the writer was surrounded by Aspergians, and she anxiously awaited the release of my next book.

Look Me in the Eye has touched so many people. It’s just the most remarkable thing.

It makes me proud to be an Aspergian.

Aspergians as mates

Sometimes my blog essays are funny. Sometimes they are thoughtful or serious. And sometimes they echo what I hear from readers. In recent days I’ve had a few reader emails, comments and book reviews suggesting what a thankless and difficult job it is, being married to an Aspergian. I asked my mate if she felt that was true. “No,” she said. “Aspergians are just like any other guys. They have their good points and bad points. Of all the guys I went out with, you’re still the best by far.”

I realized she’s probably right, but perhaps not for the reasons people think.

If I had a blog dealing with alcoholism I’d get people writing in to tell me how hard it is to be married to a drunk. If my blog dealt with drug use, I’d hear how hard it is being married to a cokehead.

What if my blog dealt with being black, or being gay? Would people write in, telling me how hard it is being with a black guy, or a gay guy . . . . . got you there, didn’t I? Why don’t you think I’d get those comments too?


I’ll tell you why. Because society is no longer willing to accept being black or gay as a “problem.” But society does accept being Aspergian as a “problem” and as a result, people will hang all manner of other relationship issues off of it.

There was a time – many of you readers are old enough to remember it – when being black or gay WAS a problem. But that time has passed. It’s time for it to pass for Aspergians, too.

We’ve got out pluses and our minuses. On the whole, this is how I think it breaks down:

Aspergians who are highly impaired by their condition will struggle with many social tasks, and marriage is one of the things they’ll struggle with.

Aspergians who are not very impaired – those of us who are “pleasantly eccentric,” as I told Emily Rooney on public television last night – won’t struggle too much with social issues, and we won’t struggle too much with marriage either. At least no more than the “average guy,” whatever that is.

That’s not too surprising.

You can focus on the good or bad in anyone. You can pick out the strange things Aspergians say and do, or you can notice our kindness, loyalty, and devotion to family. We may not seem affectionate when we stare at the floor, and we may forget birthdays and anniversaries, but many non-Aspergian people are like that too. We're often exceptionally articulate, gentle, and smart.

Drug or alcohol addictions are curable problems (at least sometimes.) Although I think you’d be a fool to do it, you could even marry a drunk hoping to dry him or her out. But we’ve all heard those stories – it doesn’t usually work. Aspergianism, in contrast, is not a curable problem. It’s not a problem at all – it’s a way of being. Aspergians can learn to act differently and to fit in better, but our basic thought processes are what they are. We improve with age, but we do not generally experience fundamental changes.

Those of you who think, "life sucks, being married to an Aspergian" should consider that we were Aspergian before marriage, and we're Aspergian today. Just as people who were black or gay last year are still black or gay today. And it's hurtful for all of us to hear that type of criticism for being what we are naturally.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Book covers and bears

Wherever I appear to talk about Look Me in the Eye, the cover draws praise. People liken it to a Norman Rockwell print, and they tell me how it fits the book perfectly, how they love the squinty child, and how it stands out.

Many folks assume I created the cover. I didn’t. The cover is the creation of Whitney Cookman, who heads the art department at Crown Publishers. For those of you who have not met him, here he is, at his desk, the day before my book went on sale:

Like all commercial artists, Whitney’s work is focused on a task; in this case, selling books. Some people will walk into a bookstore hot on the trail of my book. A snappy cover ensures they find it fast. Other people come into a bookstore to browse, and a book that shouts “pick me up” is a lot more likely to be bought that a book whose cover has nothing at all to say. The successful cover artist has to create cover designs that grab readers from twenty feet away in a crowded store. Everyone agrees – Look Me in the Eye has a cover that’s up to the job.

When I talked with Whitney a few weeks ago, I realized something interesting. Cover artists – to be successful – must have an “invisible style.” That seems strange, because a “style” is considered essential to many other creative people in the arts. For example, successful writers all have recognizable styles. Many readers could pick out a book by King or Grisham, for example, without ever seeing the cover. Once I've written a few more books, I hope the same will be true for me. Many art enthusiasts can recognize a Picasso, an Andy Warhol, or a Dali by the style, too. And the same is true of photographers, like Diane Arbus or Ansel Adams.

My own concert and circus photography has a unique, recognizable style.

But if a cover artist’s books all had the same style, how would they stand out? They’d all look similar. And that would never work. Each book cover must be totally unique. Look at some of the other big books from Crown . . . . can you see any pattern in the covers? I can’t. They all emerged from Whitney’s art department, and all are unique. That is a remarkable accomplishment.

(For those of you who wonder what the other Crown titles are, here’s the catalog page: )

That’s an interesting point to ponder . . . Whitney's a successful artist whose style must remain invisible to ensure success. Each book has to be unique, unless it’s part of a series, in which case the series as a whole must be unique and each title within must appear as a part.

I never thought about that before, but now that I see it, it’s obvious. I wonder what he’ll come up with for my next book?

Yesterday, my publisher, Tina Constable, was happy to send him more work. Here’s Tina at her desk, one Monday morning. Note how fresh and enthusiastic she looks, and this at 9 on a Monday morning. And that’s typical of this industry. Most all the people I’ve met in publishing seem to have a great love for the work. The only place I’ve seem similar enthusiasm in business is at music publishers, whom I visited back in my rock'n'roll days.

I can’t quite imagine looking like that when faced with a pile of 500 insurance claims to be administered, or 300 loan requests to approve or deny. Creating and publishing books is truly a fun thing to do, and it shows.

Getting back to the book and cover design . . . When a book becomes a New York Times bestseller, the Times allows publishers to add a colored stamp to the cover. In my case, it says, “Instant New York Times Bestseller.” So as soon as they heard the news about Look Me in the Eye, the cover went back to Whitney for modification, adding a red star to the lower right side.

You’ll see the modified cover in stores in the next few weeks.

Before I go, I’d like to offer this vignette into the secret life of authors.

I was gone all last week, doing appearances in Washington DC and the Midwest. I arrived home late Thursday, and I went to Robison Service first thing Friday to see how the shop was doing in my absence. An hour after I arrived, Martha (my wife, who you’ll meet in the book) called.

“There’s a bear in the yard. A big black one. By the bird bath.”

She had not asked a question. She had merely stated the facts. Thinking for a moment, I felt some response other than “Neat!” was called for. So I said, “Maybe he’s thirsty, or likes poultry.”

Ignoring my response, she continued, “The dog was out there too but I brought him inside.”

Trying to be helpful, I said, “So we know he wasn’t hungry. Wonder what he wants?”

She squealed. Now, at this point, some guys would just abandon their mates and return to work. Not me. I always try and offer workable, constructive suggestions.

“There’s a shotgun in the closet. Shoot him twice if he breaks down the door. The bears at Yellowstone know how to work doorknobs but the ones here probably haven’t figured them out yet.”

I knew that was a good answer. Practical advice is always welcome.

Secure with my advice, she stood at the window and watched as the bear lumbered back into the woods. This time last year, we had a six-foot-tall moose in the yard. He wandered off too. Neither one of them tried the door.

* * *

And a few more tidbits before I go . . . .

I just found out that Look Me in the Eye is now Random House Australia's #1 non fiction title. Here's the top ten, Down Under:
THE GOD DELUSION by Richard Dawkins
DOWN UNDER by Bill Bryson

And in the United States, Look Me in the Eye has also debuted at #11 on the BookSense bestseller list:

All of this is far beyond my wildest expectations. It's hard to believe now, but just twelve months ago, I sat at this same computer wondering if my book would ever see the light of day. And look at it now!

And that’s all for this Sunday night . . . . .

Friday, October 5, 2007

And now, some questions from the audience

I’ve been running as fast as I can, from one appearance to another, but despite my best efforts I have yet to meet most of you in person. Whenever I do a reading, I take questions from the audience, and the crowds invariably raise thought-provoking issues. Here are a few. I’ll put up more in a subsequent post. Feel free to add questions or comments of your own.

Question: Why do you think kids and teenagers with Asperger’s are often depressed?

Answer: I think we have to distinguish real clinical depression, where everything is right with the world and yet the person is so depressed they can’t get out of bed, from sadness that’s a result of life events.

Many autistic and Aspergian young people are just treated deplorably by their peers, and even by grownups. If someone called you “retard” or “meathead” every day, don’t you think you’d maybe start feeling a little bit down too? “Depression” in young Aspergians is often a direct result of the way society treats kids who are “different” and it’s something we should all be aware of in our own day-to-day lives.

Question: Are kids with Asperger’s often violent?

Answer: As I said in response to the previous question, young Aspergians are often treated terribly because the “act funny.” Some take the teasing and soldier on. Others turn inward, and withdraw from contact with other humans. Others take all they can, and lash out.

I myself have never been violent.

The vast majority of Aspergians I’ve met are shy and gentle by nature. Those that do last out deserve understanding, because it’s often their peers who set the situation up with persistent teasing and bullying. This is something for parents and teachers to watch very closely.

Question: Is there an Asperger’s or autism epidemic?

Answer: The word “epidemic” implies that people “catch” autism. I don’t believe that happens. I believe I was born the way I am, and my belief is supported by observation of my parents, my son, and genealogical research.

There is certainly a surge in autism/Asperger cases, but some of that surge is due to changes in diagnostic criteria (I’m an example of that) while other cases may result from newly emergent causes.

One possible (and controversial) emergent cause is chemical poisoning. Mercury in vaccine and lead paint are suggested as causes of autism in children, but the range of possible chemical contaminants is almost limitless. I firmly believe that we as a society do not understand the overall impact of the chemicals our industrial society puts into our food, in our air, and in our water.

There are so many examples of “good chemicals” going bad, how could a responsible person think otherwise. DDT . . . PCBs . . . asbestos . . .lead paint. Do some of today’s chemicals combine and act to cause brain damage that’s diagnosed as autism? Who can say? It certainly sounds possible. But I don’t have the knowledge to know where to look for specific causative agents.

Question: If you could take a pill to make the Asperger’s go away, would you do it?

Answer: No. Medication would dull my spark, and don’t want that. I’ll take the lows in order to enjoy the highs. I myself do not want any “treatment” via medication. That said, I recognize the enormous value of insight into my own mind (which led to my book) and I recognize other people may make different and valid choices in their own lives. For example, I am aware that many people feel a need for antidepressants or medicine to calm panic attacks. While I don’t want those things myself I am not critical of those who do.

I strongly believe that insight into our own minds is one of the best tools for any reasonably functional person on the spectrum (or anywhere else, for that matter.) I believe that to be true whether or not a person chooses medication or other treatment. Knowledge is always power, in our own lives and elsewhere. For many people, the advice, “work to make your life better” is a good alternative to, :take a pill.” It’s the route I’ve always chosen.

It’s official – Look Me in the Eye debuts as a New York Times Bestseller!

I just got word that Look Me in the Eye made the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list immediately upon going on sale September 25th. It will be #13 on the October 16 list, which tracks sales for books in the September 25 week.


To my great amazement, the book has already been reprinted five times, and there are one hundred thousand copies in print. My book has been reprinted every few days for the past couple of weeks to keep up with the orders. Who would ever have guessed that there’d be such a huge demand for a story like this?

The bestseller list is dominated my huge bestselling authors, presidents, and major public figures. And yet, there I am, right in the midst of them. I can understand why millions of readers want to know what President Clinton or Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan have to say. Deplorable as it may be to some, many want to know "How OJ Did It." And I know there are huge crowds awaiting the next Grisham or Sparks. But why me? A guy no one has heard of? The remarkable demand for my book tells me that the country’s interest in Asperger’s and the way all people think and feel is very, very strong.

It’s the same response I’m seeing at all my readings and appearances. I hear it from booksellers, too, when I stop by to sign copies of my book.

I marvel at the undercurrent of interest in the working of the mind our society. People sometimes say, “it’s just a good, funny book!” While I am thrilled to hear that readers think my book is “good” or “well written” or “funny,” I do not think it would have been an Instant Bestseller if my topic had been Wall Street, the trucking industry, or real estate riches. Asperger’s and “growing up different” are the key.

My book is all about “fitting in.” And I guess deep down, that’s what all of us want. It doesn’t matter if someone have Asperger’s or not – we all want people to like us, and we want to find our place in the world. And that’s really the essence of my story.

At every reading, someone asks what I wanted to accomplish by writing Look Me in the Eye. And I tell them the same thing . . . I wanted to provide hope and inspiration for young people struggling to find their way. I wanted to show people what it’s like to be “different.” I want moms and teachers to look at that kid by himself in the corner a little bit differently, the next time they see him.

Thanks so much to all of you, here at the blog and in real life, who've helped to make this a success. And my brother deserves a special mention . . . it was his book, Running With Scissors - and the public's response to his story - that gave me courage to write my own. I would never have written a book without his encouragement. I'm far too shy.