John Elder Robison taught himself electronics while growing up and was so skilled that despite dropping out of high school in ninth grade, he designed pyrotechnic guitars for the rock group Kiss and sound effects for electronic games.
Yet to hear him tell it, some of Robison's greatest work comes while he's standing on stage speaking to crowds about how he's lived with
and conveying to young people with the disorder a message that no one told him when he was a child.
"Life gets better for folks like us as we get older," said Robison, who visited Centennial High School on Tuesday for a presentation and to sign copies of his book "Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian," which was published last year.
"Be Different" was published four years after Robison's book "Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's," which included a foreword from his brother, Augusten Burroughs, who also wrote about his childhood in his memoir "Running with Scissors."
The event was co-sponsored by the Howard County-based Individual Differences in Learning Association, and the Howard and Prince George's public schools.
Robison, who lives in the Springfield, Mass., area, spoke before a crowd of hundreds at Centennial, offering riveting personal accounts of growing up in a turbulent household and dealing with Asperger's, a disorder that affects the development of communication and socialization skills.
Attending was Mia Dubin of Columbia, 15, who said she has been diagnosed with Asperger's. She said Robison's speech bolstered her conviction that she can accomplish her goal of being an entomologist.
"People with Asperger's usually stick to one thing. We know what it is that we want to do," said Mia, who added that Robison's speech underscored her belief that "it's good to know that you have a gift when you're really young."
Robison, 55, said his Asperger's wasn't diagnosed until he was 40. But, he added, "You have to remember that Asperger's wasn't put into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until its full revision in the mid-1990s.
"I had always felt like I was a misfit growing up," he said. He said that his parents taught at the University of Massachusetts and though he dropped out of school, he taught himself engineering by working in the school's labs. He left home at 16 and turned his engineering skills to music.
"I had no thought in those years that I had Asperger's; I didn't know what it was," Robison said. "What I thought was that I was different and defective. Even though I was smart technically and had all these successes with technology, I really didn't have any friends.
"Nobody invited me to birthday parties; nobody invited me out to dinner. I was essentially alone. And that's the thing about people with Asperger's: Very often we are smart or technically capable, but we are isolated."
Robison eventually left the music industry and launched a business restoring European cars that he still owns in the Springfield area. He said he first heard about Asperger's from one of his customers, a therapist.
"One day, he tells me that he has a new book about a condition they're talking about, and he says, 'It describes you to a T,'" said Robison, referring to the book "The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome" by Tony Attwood.
"At first, I was shocked, and I said, 'What's this?'" Robison said. "But I looked at the book, and I realized that's who I am. It was a life-changing thing. I saw for the first time that I wasn't just defective. I saw why I was different.
"And I resolved to change myself," Robison said. "It was like magic. People began to befriend me, to invite me to places, do things with me. And that's what made me see that there must be millions of people growing up like me for whom life sucks because they, too, are social misfits."
He has worked for past 10 years to instill hope in people with Asperger's, beginning with inmates in prerelease programs and teenagers in group homes.
"I want people to see that we get better with age," he said. "When you read the stories in my books, it is clear that I was a disabled child. I didn't have friends. I couldn't pass school.
"But when you look at my adult life, I'm not disabled at all," Robison said. "That's a message we can emerge with from disability, and it's very important that young people who haven't experienced success see that."
Elaine Wooton of Monrovia, who attended Robison's presentation, said that she often gives his book "Look Me in the Eye" to friends and associates, including some who have shown signs of Asperger's that might be contributing to struggles at work.
"The book can be instrumental in helping people self-reflect," she said. "That book is really important."