John Elder Robison, New York Times best selling author grew up with Asperger’s Syndrome and was undiagnosed until the age of 40. Robison discusses his journey and provides a glimpse into his experience shared in the book “Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Intelligence.”
Unknown Speaker 0:00
Okay, I'd like to get started. You know, a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a new engineer at this lab, Andrew firmage, in about what it's like to be at at Livermore. And we're, you know, kind of using the Think about the five to 10 most talented people you ever met at school, and then multiply that by hundreds of schools, and put them all in one square mile. And that's the lab. That's, that's, that's, that's each of us. I, every single person that I have met, every single person that I have met at this lab has just been super special. And that means that each one of us are not average. I don't think we're typical. Today, we're here to celebrate disabilities Awareness Month by focusing on neuro diversity. And we welcome john elder Robison today to talk to us about what it means to be neuro atypical, and how our differences are really our greatest gifts to each other and to the world. This talk is co sponsored by the abilities champions, and and Lisa, and thank you so much, Lisa, this is just fantastic. The abilities champions is an employee resource group that is dedicated to the idea that people with disabilities, that and the disabilities that we have, do not define us as less but instead point to our specialness in our greatness in our genius. This is certainly true for people on the autism spectrum or to other ways neuro diverse, because we think that neuro diversity brings us superpowers, as as john is going to talk about, after Mr. Robinson's talk, you might be inspired to want to work more with neuro diverse people. And at our lab, you can probably do that by simply looking around, you can probably look around right now. You know, in with 100 today, we believe that a one and 100 people are recognized as autistic and one in 10 have ADHD are same, but same for dyslexia. So there's a huge talent pool to tap into. If you have a role in your organization that you would like to fill. We have rows down here. There she is, from the regional center of the East Bay. She Sharon bobbitt, Avi Thomas, and Susan Lauder are all here to talk to you. They have the thing about Rose is that she has money the status set aside. Everybody has elapsed has gotten money. We're all getting this the status set aside $10,000 for for for each person that you know California resident that qualifies to to start working with us to kind of grease the skids. So you know, we should just know about that. Also, if you'd like to host a neuro diverse intern next summer, Brian gira. Right there. You can ask him about the ryan internship program. And if you have a relative student that you know of who is who is neuro diverse. Katherine Stewart is here, as She's the founder and director of the ryan Academy, which is a high school dedicated to neuro diversity. And of course, if you'd like to join the abilities champions, you can talk to me now to Mr. Robertson. JOHN elder Robison grew up with Asperger's syndrome and was undiagnosed until the age of 40. He has lived an incredible life and I will say that, unlike pretty much all of us, he does know rock stars. He has had much impact on rock stars and his he is a neuro diversity scholar in residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, one of the founders of the neuro diversity program at that school, which is the first one of the first of its kind in either major American University. His books switched on, look me in the eye, be different and raising cubby are the most widely read accounts of life with Asperger's in the world. His books have been translated into more than 15 languages sold in more than 60 countries. He has authored or contributed to more than 100 autism related articles, and he is the leading voice in autism. He's going to challenge us to find strengths where others see weaknesses. And with that, let's welcome john elder Robison.
Unknown Speaker 4:47
Thank you all for joining me today and to the lab for inviting me out. You might wonder what my talk has has to do with these pictures of musicians and pegs and automobiles on the screen behind me. The answer is that I started speaking about autism and neurodiversity almost 15 years ago now. And when I started talking to upscale professional audiences, I discovered that there were trained professional speakers doing this. And these trained professional speakers often appeared with PowerPoint presentations, and they put their slides on the screen, and they read them to you. But I believe that it's sort of a test of being a capable speaker, if you were able to get up here and actually just talk to people without a bunch of slides behind you. But still, I didn't want to be deficient in that way. Because as an autistic person, I was called deficient all my life. So I wanted to show you something. So this, here behind me is a slideshow of pictures of things that I see in my life. And there are pictures in here of musicians from my life and in music, I don't engineer rock and roll anymore, but I photograph all kinds of music, from my life, restoring cars. And from the places I go, like here that's on the street, now, Boulder, Colorado, and are all the places that talking about autism and neuro diversity has taken me it's really most remarkable. It's taken me to the farthest corners of the world. With this message of our abilities. I actually have in here, there's one there, pictures of California just for you to I put in there, you want to see which ones you can recognize. So I, I grew up before autism and people like me, and probably by extension, a number of you was, was recognized for what it is, when I was a kid, if you were unable to speak, and you had really obvious cognitive disability, those were the only people that were diagnosed with autism. somebody like me who had a good language skills, but who couldn't read body language who didn't understand subtleties of spoken or visual expressions who couldn't read body language. I was always failing in my interactions, I dropped your face. And you said, that's great. And I didn't know if he were praising me or you were going to attack me. And and when I offer the wrong response, the people would think that makes it even worse. He's mocking me, and he's having me on and he's just a little monster. To look back at that, I realize all these people probably were good hearted, decent people. And it's really sad to think how quick they were to assume the worst of me and people like me. And you know, it still happens today. So I couldn't really ever say or do the right thing. People told me how smart I was. But when I used my smarts, to tell my teachers, what was wrong with the lessons they presented me, they responded by giving me EFS. And then they were resentful when my failing grades didn't motivate me to behave differently. I was kinda like all I knew. And
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by the time I got to be 13, I was failing all my subjects in my local high school. And there was really one thing that saved me and it led me actually to my first engagement with your lab, but it took a few years for that to happen. My parents are both professors at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. My father was a professor Philosophy and my mother taught English and at writing. My parents gave me a electronics kit for Christmas. It was a computer. And some of you will remember what computer kits were in the 1960s. They weren't what we have today, they were circuits with dials, like electronic slide rules, and you turn the dials and when the meter went to the middle, you look down at a third dial. And that was the the answer for your little thing that can multiply numbers. And it wouldn't work. And no matter how I tried, I couldn't make it work. And my mother said, my friend, Mrs. Edwards, her husband, is an engineering professor, I'll bring you over there, he'll help you. And you can imagine how enthusiastic he was about helping this 13 year old kid with this electronic slide rule. And he did what other professors have done over the years, he, he invited me to his lab in the engineering building, and he handed me over to the grad students. And so the grad students are very quick to realize that I was smarter than a German Shepherd. And because of my parents, being faculty, I was immune to university discipline. And so I became the vehicle by which we tried all manner of scientific experiments, they sent me to the top of our new grad Research Center, which was, at the time, the tallest scientific research building at an American University. And we discovered how the craters on the moon formed their distinct patterns, my rolling barrels of tar off the roof and watching them hit the ground. And, and in the midst of that, I learned how to make that electronic slide rule work. And, you know, I was fascinated by the convergence of electronics and music. And I don't know why that happened. But, but I just became totally enthralled by how electronic circuits, processed music, and I loved music, and millions and millions of young kids did too. But I had this fixation of music and electronics. And at the time, with the grad students helping me, I learned how to take apart circuits, how to modify them. For years, all I could do is destroy things. And, and then it got to where I can fix things. And then I got to be able to build things and I could copy other circuits that people had made and then buy and buy, I realized I was inventing my own. And, you know, I had failed in high school by that point. And I had dropped out of high school. And I was just studying electronics at the university. And, and I had gotten interest of local bands. And, and it was a kind of a remarkable thing, because here, you are starting this neuro diversity initiative. But when I was a kid, there was no such thing. There were no companies that wanted to hire high school dropouts. Even places like McDonald's wanted a high school, graduate. In fact, my guidance counselor said, Son, if you leave, even the army isn't going to take you because Vietnam is winding down, and they're going to stop drafting, and they won't let you enlist as a drop out. was such great encouragement from my school. I still remember it today. And
Unknown Speaker 13:56
so I am I found a welcome among musicians. The thing about musicians is they did not care one bit. Whether I went to high school or college or graduated or not, what they cared about is I could make their Fender Twin sing when other people couldn't, I could make the music better. I could fix their amplifiers, I could modify their instruments, when they wanted their bass to be punchy here or they that guitar to sing in a different way. I could translate their words into circuits and the circuits did what they wanted. And for that reason, the musicians made me welcome and my circuits came to the attention of bigger and bigger bands. And by the time I turned 21 I was actually I wish I could tell you I was touring Livermore, California, but I wasn't my 21st birthday was riding a ferry to corner Brook Newfoundland, on tour with a band called April wine has a huge band in Canada, when I was working for Britannia row who was Pink Floyd sound company. And even though nobody's heard of April, wine, a lot of America most everyone's heard of Pink Floyd. And, and what I did for those bands was create sound effects and make things sing. And ultimately, I went from doing effects, you heard two effects you watched. I went to work for a kiss and created their visual special effects guitars, all their guitars that lit up and shot fire and shot rockets and such. And, and, you know, that led me to my first offer of employment here in California. I was at that time still living in Amherst, Massachusetts, college town and rural Western Mass. And everyone saw those kiss guitars on television stuff. And I had, I had some requests to make small effects like that for the film industry out here. And after doing that, I got invited to come out here to talk about a job at this what was then a startup company called lucasfilms, as director of engineering. And, and I thought to myself, What do I do? These people want me to come out and have this big job in engineering in California. And they're going to hire me. And they're going to realize that I'm not a real engineer, I'm just a fraud, and a fake engineer and a high school dropout. I'm nothing, they're going to hire me. And they're going to discover that and they're going to fire my ass. And I'm going to be on the street starving in Los Angeles. And, and, you know, you listen to that account today. And you think what kind of crazy talk is that? Because all that stuff I designed and music. People still listen to it and watch it today. It speaks for itself. But that's what I believed. And I believed it because people said it to me all my life. People outside the music world did not say, Well, you know, you're a smart engineer, look what you've done. They said, Oh, that doesn't mean anything. You just got lucky. Yes. And you're not a real engineer Bob here. He's a real engineer. He went to college You're not? And people just dismissed what I did. And I, I thought, how could I ever consider a job like that across the country. And ultimately, I decided that I should take a local engineering job instead. And I should give up music because I had failed at music. If I, if I couldn't move to LA and I couldn't move to New York, I couldn't continue working with bands. And I should just concede that I failed and I should do something else. And I wanted to
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get a job using my skills. And they were looking for at the time a engineer to create sound effects at Milton Bradley, who was a partner with Texas Instruments, they were developing speech synthesis, that was the very beginning of chip based speech synthesis and electronic sounds and in games. And I went down there and I interviewed and and you know, for the engineering department, I was ideally qualified because I was the only candidate, the engineering manager told me who had real world experience making sound effects. Everybody else thought it was neat, but I had actually done it. And and so the next step was I had to be interviewed by the personnel department, you might wonder, how did I manage to get by the personnel department in the day when you had to have one of those engineering degrees to get in the door? And the truth is I I kind of misled those people about the hat. And we we live in a time now when you can ascertain if somebody is a Harvard graduate in a matter of minutes, but it wasn't that way in the 70s. Instead, what we had was a personnel boss. You don't even have personnel bosses anymore. You have cultured, refined people and human resources, but a personnel boss a big thug with a baseball bat behind his desk and And the way he operated was he made it his business to know the professors at all the local schools because that's where they hired people from. And, and so when you went in to be interviewed with him, he didn't, you know, necessarily know about electrical or mechanical or any other kind of engineering or accounting, but he knew all those people. And he said to me, Well, did you know Professor nevan? And you know, Professor Walgreens, you know, Professor Edwards. And of course, I passed out with flying colors, because I rode the school bus with their kids since 1965. I knew every single one of them at and sometimes he would say to me is, you know, this and that professor and I would say, Oh, yes, I did. But you know, he's not an electrical engineering professor. He's a mechanical engineering professor. And the guy nodded his head. And I guess I really impressed him with my knowledge of the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, because a few days later, they offered me the job. And you know, in a postscript to that. I didn't know this at the time. But I always assumed that I was like living on borrowed time that they would discover that I was like a fraud and a fake and not a real engineer, and they would fire me. And so at Milton Bradley, we brought out a series of toys using sound effects that I took part in creating. And we also brought out the first stem, first toys and games that used electronic speech synthesis and used electronic speech recognition. On the thing we did in partnership with Texas Instruments speaking spell became the biggest selling educational toy in history. Simon was at that time the biggest selling electronic game in history. Microvision was the first changeable cartridge handheld video game ever. It is the game whose underlying patents are the foundation for every cartridge video game kids play today. And the noises that we created in those 1970s video games became the standards and they are the noises that you still hear today. But despite those successes, which are real, I believed I was a fake, and I was about to be fired, I better quit. I quit and got another job. And so 30 some years passed, you know, and I learned about being autistic. And I wrote these books. And I came into the public view and Discovery Channel, decided to do a TV show about people with unusual minds and want to do our show about me. And they sent a bunch of people to interview folks from my past. And some of the people they interviewed. Were those professors at UMass. And you know, what was really funny is every one of those professors when the Personnel Department called, they said their personnel guy, oh, yes, john Robinson, he's a really bright young man, his, his father is a professor of philosophy here, and he's this and that, and he's really, you know, he's really into music and a really smart fellow, he'd be really good for you. And not one of those people said, but he was never a student at the University of Massachusetts. So I had the blessing of all these professors that got me in the door. And, and you know, the one next places I went,
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I got promoted from being an engineer to being head of r&d. And then I went from being the head of r&d there to be in head of r&d at another, a little company that made power conditioning systems. And that was where your organization came along. It was the early 1980s by then, and you folks and the folks at Los Alamos were interested in putting monitoring equipment, in shipping containers, sort of at Ground Zero on top of the areas in the desert, where we set off nuclear explosions. And there was at that time, this, this understanding of the impact of electromagnetic energy that was released in those blasts on equipment, especially equipment that was only a few 1000 feet away from the blast, and your engineers came up with a specification for something to suppress that. And our company took that job, and I undertook to design it. Now at that time, we were a little company we had no we had no circuit simulation equipment. We had no big computers. We had my imagination. And I read about the problem. And I envisioned what the pulses we needed to suppress would be and I imagined circuitry that would do that. But there was also a physical component to what you wanted, because it had to withstand being tossed into the air and then dropped on the ground and keep running. And I imagined all of that. And then the folks from the National Labs came out, and we found a testing facility that would test the stuff. And then government people tested my designs, and it did everything they asked, and they carried it off telling me it's use was classified, but thank thanking me for my creations. And then they came back and bought more. And I figured, well, what's the work because they bought more of them. And when they came back and bought more, I made slight improvements to them and took those away, too. And, and, you know, what's funny is I never even saw what they did with the stuff. And it was the Discovery Channel, people who got it out of the government under the Freedom of Information Act, they put it on television. So there's like now drawings on an old TV show that you can see what they did with it. And then a few years later, I had gone to another company, and I change companies. Because each time I thought I wasn't a real engineer, I was just a fake engineer. And I can't really make a career of any of these places, because none of them are home for me, because I'm just a fake engineer. And, and I went to a company, I was actually, I was head of power systems at Candela laser, which made at that time medical and military laser systems. And you folks came to Candela and you wanted pulse power supplies, that would generate huge pulses of power in a microsecond that you wanted to use for fusion research, firing lasers. We made other military stuff. But that was the thing that we did here. And once again, it was a matter of using reasoning power to figure out how to do what you wanted, which was generating about 10 times more peak power than anything we had ever done before. And we did that successfully, also. And yet, I quit that job. And I decided, you know, I've just gone through a succession of jobs and electronics. And I got to just admit that I failed in electronics, and I just got to give up. And I'm going to start a business where nobody's going to ever ask where I came from, I'm going to start fixing cars in my driveway. Because nobody asks you where you went to college, put in a water pump on a Mercedes.
Unknown Speaker 28:11
And, and that's what I did. I told him at Candela that I was going to quit my job as a head of one of the divisions of that company and I was going to fix cars instead. And they thought what kind of crazy is that? That is the most obvious story that I have ever heard. And, and you're, and you're going to work for a competitor, you won't tell us who? And and I said no, you know, I don't know how to convince you in smh I swear in our Bible or whatever. But I'm, I'm not going to work for anyone else. I'm not doing it. And and that's what I did. And, and, you know, it was only after starting that car business, that I acquired social skills, because when you run a business like that, you have to learn how to be nice to people, and they won't come back a second time and you can't be self employed if people don't ever come back. And, and it was there that I got to know the customers who came in and the business prospered. I used my what I now recognize are autistic abilities to focus and understand those machines and see inside them in ways that people cannot. And the business was successful. And I got to know the people who came in and one of them was a therapist and after watching me for a few years, he comes in one day and he says to me, you know, john, you've told me so many times, how alone and isolated you feel and you've told me how you feel like you're standing at a window in the rain and you're looking inside and all the people are on the Inside, and you don't know how to get in. And I've seen you not know what to say to customers and how things fall apart and go bad. And, and I've seen you struggle with that. And there is an explanation for that, that they're talking about in the mental health community. And it's called Asperger syndrome. And he says, you know, therapists learn not to diagnose their friends, or Pretty soon, they won't have any. But But he said, this is, you know, just such a, such an extraordinary thing that I, I decided to tell you. And, of course, he then he said, it's a kind of autism. And all I knew of autism was what I knew, as a child, you know, that you couldn't talk and I said, it was obvious that wasn't me. And I thought that was nuts. But as I read that book he gave me I realized that everything he said, I fit me. And it described me perfectly. And I realized that I was, like, he said, I was not a fraud, or a fake, normal person, I was, I was a person with Asperger's, I was what I am. And, and that was the first time in my life that I had a non judgmental explanation of why I was different. And, and ultimately, that led me to the idea that I wanted to tell young people about being different. And to start speaking out, I had already been speaking out about growing up under bad circumstances, some of you might have read my brother's book running with scissors that was made into a film 12 years ago. And if you did read that, you know that my brother and I grew up in an environment with domestic violence and child abuse and sex abuse and stuff. And I, I talk about my parents as college professors, and that's absolutely true. They were college professors, but my father was also in those years of violent drunk. And my mother suffered from really serious mental illness. And, and that's a side that
Unknown Speaker 32:30
I began talking to young people about, that they too, could survive that sort of thing in childhood, and they could, they could be okay. And it was easy to find kids like that they're everywhere in every city. But if you want to talk to autistic kids, and remember, this is 20 years ago, it's not so easy to find a room full of autistic kids. Now, there are schools for autistic people, and they're everywhere, but they didn't exist where I was them. And I decided that the best thing for me to do was write a book to tell the story. And ultimately, that became, look me in the eye, and it took off all over the world. And that launched me on this career of advocacy that brings me to speak to you today. The most remarkable thing is that all this time, even in writing that book, I believe, because what people had said to me, I believed that people like me were less than other people. We were like a lower grade of humanity because we couldn't socialize. We couldn't engage people. We couldn't do the right things. I had internalized all this stuff people had said to me about not being a real engineer not being any, any this and that. And and I believed it. And after writing that book, people asked me to get involved in helping with autism research. To my amazement, I was invited to a conference up in Canada, and I spoke to a bunch of people and and after that teleconference, fella comes up and he introduces himself to me and he says, he's director, US National Institutes of Health and what I consider offering my insights the government, and he was accompanied by the director of the National Institutes of mental health, the National Institute of children's health, and, and they offered to be my mentors, if I would join in providing insights. And you know, at first when I heard that I thought, that this is like a joke that but I'm like the comic interlude or something in doing that, but Tom spent over a decade and I continue to be reappointed. I was appointed under the Obama's first Secretary of Health and Human Services. And I've been reappointed under Trump's secretaries. And, and I guess I've come to see that they wouldn't keep me around if they didn't value what to what I had to say. I've now been invited to serve as a North American representative to steering committees for the World Health Organization to define autism. And I've been invited to participate in research studies to understand autism and how we might help people. My books switched on which the lab has bought and given to at least as many of you as got in early enough to get one that tells the story of my collaboration with some really brilliant neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School, one of whom wrote the foreword for the book, and it's certainly a it's a cool story. And, and it was actually, the fellow who wrote the foreword for that book, Dr. alver, Opus, call Leone, who gave me the insight that brings me to you today into the autism at work. And that was, he said to me, when we first met, he said he was interested in studying autistic savant behaviors. And I said, Well, what is an autistic savant behavior? And he said, it's a, it's a person who demonstrates an ability that people look at and say, That's impossible, couldn't be done. So a savant he thought was sort of like a mental gymnast. It wasn't a physical Feat. But he said,
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an example of that was this fellow Daniel tammet, who sent another autistic person who took a challenge on BBC television to learn to speak Icelandic in a couple of weeks and come back and have a conversation because he had a gift for languages. And everyone said, That's impossible. He did that. And the thing that led them to ask that is he had memorized pi 220 2000 decimal places. Many of you probably know pi 268 10, or 12, I doubt there's a one of you that knows to 20,000, let alone 21 or 22. And, and and there's a question whether it is a feat of memorization, or a power of deduction. And it's even less likely. But there could be some of you that can reduce it to 22,000. If he can, why can't you? And anyway, he said that. He said, You know, there was a thing in your book that I thought was a classic example of a salon behavior. And I said, What was that? And he said, he talked in your book about how you got the job as an engineer, Milton Bradley, and how Milton Bradley was looking for a digital engineer to design sound effects. And you said you had taught yourself analog engineering and music. And you said, how much different can digital engineering be? And you went to the lab to he went to the Library at the University, and you read about digital design for a couple of weeks, and you went down and interviewed and got the job? And, and I said, What do you mean, I everybody else who read that story? Told me that's a classic example of my way into a job. And he, he laughed at that. And he said, he said, No, he said, Do you think about what happened? He said, maybe you could get the job, buy your way into it. But you would fail. If you didn't have the knowledge to design the circuits. You couldn't have stayed in the job. And to read your book. He said, You design circuits and this thing and this thing, and this thing and this thing. And those aren't theoretical things. Those are toys that went on the market, right? And I said, Yeah, they're, of course they're toys on the market. And, and he said, then you went on and you did these other things in engineering, and then you went from engineering to doing that with cars. And then you went from doing that to writing books and you went from that to taking pictures and he said, most people don't have the ability to just pull that stuff out of the air. And and he said, that's an example of a of a savant about what he repeated time and again, and and he did some tests on me and he I guess that helped me to understand, for the first time in my life, that even though people had said that I had, I was not a real anything, maybe I'm not. But I have an ability to visualize things like the effect of those nuclear blasts on electrical power cables, and design circuits to modify those things. And even if I can't tell you how I can do it, the ability to do it is real. And the ability to do it is not unique to me, it turns out there are many, many autistic people have that ability. And we have thrown it away. Because we have created an educational system, where to get a job at a good company or a good workplace like this, you have to have that degree. And not only do you have to have it, you have to have a degree from a real elite University. And if you can't pass all these tests that are optimized for neurotypical people, you can't get into school. And if you can't get into school, he can't get into the job. And it is the very rare person who does something like me, like, get lucky and create musical devices that millions of people listen to that opens the door, one of those companies, without that I could never have gotten in, and I would never have been connected to you, none of this would have happened. The equivalent of that today, of course, is people who create magic with open source coding, and Google hires them. And you want to be the same way you want to figure out how how to do that. You know, this whole thing about education. I realized now that I am not the fraud is the educational system. That's a fraud. Thanks to Alvarado.
Unknown Speaker 41:58
I've actually I've done a number of programs for Harvard Medical school's Board of Trustees, and for Harvard in general. And, and I was at an event out there. And I was talking about manipulating waveforms in my head, which is what I did to create sound effects. And it's also what I did to serve the government in sonar systems and nuclear systems and other things. And, and I said, that I have this ability to solve these calculus equations with sufficient precision to do the job in my head. And in this math professor on the audience, he objected, he said, Wait a minute, how can that be? You have said to us, that you can't do conventional mathematics on paper beyond multiplication and division. And I said, Well, that's true. I, I can multiply and divide and add and subtract fractions, and I can do the same with decimals. And, and he said, well, that, how can you claim to have any understanding of calculus? And, and, you know, it was one of those great flashes of insight that I was blessed with to not look like a fool at that second. And, and I said to him, Well, maybe you guys have it all wrong. You teach today that Newton invented the calculus, and you teach Newton's calculus, here in your classes at this university. But maybe Newton did not invent the calculus. Maybe Newton was a 17th century version of me. And in fact, many people who look back on him in time, they suggest that Newton very likely was autistic. What if he was an autistic guy who saw in ripples of ripples moving on the surface of a pond or whatever else he observed, back then, he saw those waves and he manipulated them in his head. And he thought, I want a way to share the beauty of this with a person who can't see that with an ordinary person. And maybe Newton's gift to the world is not inventing calculus, but inventing a system of describing something that me him and millions of other autistic people were born with the calculus lives in people like me, and it's you who teach it to everyone else. And he kind of looked at that and he kind of looked at it and he looked at it and I could see him like that too much. But, you know, I believe it's true. Because if you look at autistic people in the world today, you can find autistic people in group homes that have tested IQs of 40. And they can't dress themselves, they can't have a job, they don't drive. They are seemingly totally disabled. And you can say, hey, Bob, what day of the week was April 5 1512? And he'll think about it, he'll answer you correctly. And there's a lot of those people out there. We can find them in this town, and we can find them in every city in the country. Nobody knows why they have those abilities, because they weren't taught that mathematics, just as no one taught me calculus, they just somehow got interested in it and learn how to do it. And nobody knows how. And we have thrown that away. Because we have said, well, who cares? I can type the date into my computer, and it'll tell me what day of the week it was. And that's true. But you know what, folks, that computer can't invent it, the computer can't think it up out of nothing, the computer can't say, in the abstract, how am I going to solve this problem, it can run an analysis if you can lay the problem out. But it can't conceive the problem to begin with, well, at least it can't do it yet, maybe in another 20 years at will. But for now, there is a place in the world for people whose minds can take those flights of fancy. And I would suggest to you that a significant number of those people are autistic. And the idea that 35 years ago, I presented my circuit designs, in the form of boxes that I had made to this lab and to Los Alamos and Sandia and other labs that used our equipment.
Unknown Speaker 46:48
And I turned away from doing that, because I thought, I'm not a real engineer. What if those government engineers discover I'm a high school dropout, they'll probably put me in prison or something. And I know you can like hear that. You can think that's crazy. But it's what I believed, because people told me I was a fake and a failure. I believed everything that I did, or real engineer could have done better. And it's only now thanks to my time with Alvarado that I realize that there's frankly, engineers out there who couldn't do it at all. And that's why the stuff I did rose to the top. And you're know, this place is full of smart, even brilliant people. And I just got to say that this is a place that could be a wonderful home, for me and more of my kind. And you are trying to do that today. And it's such a cool thing. And it's such a great honor for me to come back and talk to you because none of you knew that I have this connection decades ago to Livermore and designing this equipment. And it might not even mean anything to anyone except me. But the idea that I did that work years ago when I threw it away, because I believed I was a reject in society. And now you have an initiative to find people like me, and hire me and bring me into this environment because you think we're valuable. I think that is a most wonderful thing. And, and as much as I applaud that, there's another thing that I would I would offer to you. I believe that people with different brains have a great deal to offer in creative problem solving and design. But there's another thing we have to offer I told you about how I went from one company to another. And there's this pattern, especially out here of people quitting every year or two and changing jobs. People like me, we don't want to do that. The last thing that we want to do is go from one complex social situation to another. If I had a place that welcomed me, that made me feel like I wasn't a fraud and a fake and I was smart and they desired to have me around. If you guys had welcomed me like that in this place in 1977, I'd still be here. And what would I have done? I don't know. And what would I have done be better than what I brought the world with my autism advocacy and my work at the National Institutes of Health and William and Mary. I don't know that either. But I know that people like me, will give you loyalty, we will give you our very best thought. And we will do it at all cognitive levels. You might look at me and you might Think? Well, sure if I could get more guys like Robeson because Robeson is in Allen, at the upper end of the IQ range, well, probably most all of you are at the upper end of the IQ range too. But back at the NIH, we've got a bunch of people there at the upper end of the IQ range also. And we have found that we need autistic people of all abilities and all IQ is at the Clinical Center at NIH, that is the biggest single point Hospital in the world. We have an initiative called Project SEARCH, where we are bringing in autistic people with intellectual disabilities with profound language impairment really profound cognitive impairments. And we are teaching them to do kind of backbone tasks of NIH, for example, running the carts to deliver the mail sorting prescription bottles, maintaining hand sanitizer dispensers. And you might dismiss those kinds of jobs. You might say, well, I can go fill my hand sanitizer dispenser. Well, thank again, what if you're running an institution that's got $20,000? And what would you do for a person who will do that job reliably and correctly, day after day, and he won't be late, he won't be second, he won't quit for a better job, he will do that thing. And he will be proud to be a government employee. And he'll be proud to be part of the institution.
Unknown Speaker 51:30
It's something for you to think about, I know that you start thinking about bright, creative autistic people and that kind of advantage. But don't forget that autistic people can provide you competitive advantages at all cognitive levels. And in all kinds of jobs in this institution, we have a place everywhere. And it's all too easy to overlook that. So I think with that, we have, we probably have time for a couple of questions. And we're going to have a lunch thing. Now Can anyone who wants to come now. So only a select number can come to the lunch I you know, I wish that I had more time to say more of what I feel for you, folks. But it is just a magical thing that I have gone from design and that stuff to suppress energy pulses and nuclear blasts, to come in here to talk to you about how to get more freaks like me to do it again for the future. That is just a it's just a wonderful, wonderful thing that you were doing with this program. So I want to thank you for that. And I guess we'll see if any you have any quick questions, and then we're going to retreat for the lunch thing. Yes.
Unknown Speaker 53:04
I see on the book that we've received, they're making comparisons with your story to that of flowers for algernon. And in that story, fellow was given treatments that helped redirect his life. And then he retreated back into his former way of being. And I'm wondering about your own story, and your participation and changes you went through. And whether you see this period of your life as more similar to the early parts of your life, or a new and different path, for example.
Unknown Speaker 53:48
Well, I didn't say anything to you about that. Part of the story. Some of that is, is a thing that can still make me cry to think of it today.
Unknown Speaker 54:15
But I was invited to join this experiment is Harvard scientists. They had the idea that the conventional wisdom said autistic people can't sense emotions because we don't have the wiring in our brains to do it. And Alvarado thought that conventional wisdom was wrong, he thought that we possess the wiring to do it, but that there must be mechanism in our brains that turned that ability up and down and that the mechanism to suppress emotion was overactive in people like me. And he thought that they could use high power pulsed electromagnetic energy to couple via electromagnetic coupling to couple into the wiring between neurons in my brain. And they could fire this energy into a very small area of the brain. And in doing that, they could temporarily suppress that mechanism. And they could see what happened. They had been doing the technique, it's called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. For a number of years, they were at that time on the cusp of getting FDA approval to use TMS to treat depression. Now, you can get TMS for depression. In this city and every other city in the country, it's all over. They're using TMS, as a general neuro neurologists tool to experiment on trading many other things. I agreed to take part. And in this experiment, and the the way at work, they put me in a chair, and they showed me faces and I had to push buttons, whether they were happy, sad, I had no idea what I was seeing. And I thought I'm going to fail before I even start. And they said, No, we're going to do the stimulation on you. And then we'll test you again. And we'll see what changes. And they said, you know, we believe it's safe, because the stimulations Are you know, they only last for a few minutes. So if we stimulate you for half an hour, it's only going to affect you for 15 minutes. And you know, and so we have to do it quickly. And so they did the stimulation on me. And I looked at the faces, and it wasn't any different. And I thought what kind of crazy fool was it? I think that
Unknown Speaker 57:19
you know, I left that place two hours later. And and I turned on the music in my car. And it was like I had stepped back into 1977 it was so alive and so real. It was like a hallucination. And as you know, the powerful surge of that faded by morning. But now it's nine years later. And I can't go to a movie or watch most TV shows. Because even the concentrated emotion in a movie, it'll make me cry. And you know, I was a guy who could sit through the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and eat hot dogs and popcorn. And and I can't even go see some silly love story today. And and, you know, I believe that my participation in that experiment, the result they got with me was a total outlier. And if you're curious about that Alvarado and I went on Terry grossest show fresh air on public radio, and we talked about that, and you can actually hear Alvarado and I express our relative our opinions. And he wrote the foreword for the book that we've you know, or they have given you and it's sort of laid out there. I believe that Well, I know that the emotional ups and downs of that my marriage collapsed. I almost killed myself. I lost many of my friends. What I thought were sweet memories of older guys that were my friends when I was 13. I now realize for pedophiles that wanted to introduce me to gay sex, and my my childhood memories are ugly and dirty. And there was there was a tremendous cost to doing that. But at the same time, I told you about all these things I did as an engineer. And that's all real. I did all that stuff. Today, it's as if someone else did. And I can't tell you how I designed those things, or what I did, by did it. The thing is, all that work I did, I did alone. I was an engineer who created things by myself, even when I wrote my first book, look me in the eye, it was a solitary production. You look at my photography up here on the screen, I, it's all I do it myself, I did it myself. And today, after that, TMS I'm successful in groups, I can come here and I can engage hundreds of you. I serve on the top level of government autism committee, where there are 35 members, and there probably 50 100 people in the room. And they describe me as a leader who brings people together. And who would have ever imagined that from an autistic person who in my performance reviews in companies, they would say, john, you're not a team player, you can't tell people you could do something better than that in sixth grade, you can't tell them they're idiots, and you can't tell them they're fools. And, and you know, and people would say, you can do this you can, you can be in big review just wanted to work harder at it what it is that if I could have done it, when I was 25 years old, I would have done it for Christ's sake, I would not have been isolated and alone all my life. And you know, the TMS turned that upside down. And I'm successful. In my government service, I'm successful serving and committees and groups, I'm successful and engaging people I've never met before. But if you ask me, is it something I should do or my son should do or somebody else in my life should do? It came at a really high cost. And if you're thinking about it, just read the book and think carefully about it. It's a powerful, powerful tool. But I know it's a it's a powerful tool, but it's got its costs. And,
Unknown Speaker 1:02:18
and, you know, I didn't say anything about that, because I thought that the message of autism at work, and you folks, bringing in people like me, was more important. But you know, that's an example of how science is giving us tools to change what we believed, were unchangeable things in our brains, people said, you can't change intelligence. changing my ability to read people's emotions and engage them is changing my emotional intelligence. You can fire that TMS energy into other parts of my brain. And you can change my ability to do mathematical calculations, you can change my ability to draw figures. And in that book, I express a real concern that the parents of tomorrow will seek to use targeted TMS to make super kids in in a high performance community like this. That's a real real risk for all of you to think about. And switched on opens the door to that, but it's a totally different discussion from autism at work nonetheless, I think that it's good that you asked me, and in the contract that brought me here, it did say that I would talk about it. And now I did. We have time for another question.
Unknown Speaker 1:03:45
I just I think I speak for everyone here when I say thank you so much, um, your story has been it's touched me and very profound. And I appreciate you coming here and sharing it with all of us today. Thanks
Unknown Speaker 1:03:58
so much to all of you. And I hope that we can make this autism network happen and you can fill this place with more freaks like me. So thank you.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai