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Diversity Lecture Series Speaker offers hope and praise for community colleges

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By Clare Kolenda

John Elder Robison, autism advocate and bestselling author, spoke on Wednesday night at Fountain Street Church as part of Grand Rapids Community College’s Diversity Lecture Series. His lecture focused on telling stories of his past, showing the crowd in a remarkable and entertaining way, that autism is not a disability, but can be used as a gift to society.

“Autism also has beauty. It is the creative fire that has brought so much to society,” Robison said, emphasizing on how the “drawbacks” of autism such as fixation on particular interests, intense focus, and even obsession, can be cultivated into helping make this world a better place.

Though Robison’s parents were both professors at the University of Massachusetts, he dropped out of high school in 10th grade. Unlike today’s society, with its special education programs that help individuals with autism and Asperger’s syndrome cope in a school setting, Robison was labeled as lazy and dumb and considered a poor student.

As he talked about the contrasts of what living with Asperger’s syndrome was like years ago to present day, Robison once again drove his main point home: that autism can be both a drawback and a gift. Because he had dropped out of school, he moved away from home at a young age and joined a band. This would eventually lead him onto the journey of his very colorful life which involved touring with rock bands such as Pink Floyd and KISS and working for Milton Bradley on some of their top selling games and products.

Throughout the night, Robison spoke about the two sides of autism. One side that consists of the drawbacks that make people consider it as a disability. But Robison’s message also contains hope; because he is living proof that there are many attributes of autism that has helped him have a successful career.

“It was autism that made me a different thinker. I was never smarter than these other people. I was just wired differently,” he said. “If you can be in a place where people work different…you can be a star.”

Photo by Sarah Davis
John Elder Robison speaks with GRCC Board of Trustees Chairperson Bert Bleke.

Robison praised the efforts being made to raise awareness of autism, and the early diagnosis in children. “That is a great a chance for parents to tell little boys or girls that they are different and special and they are not less,” he said, speaking in favor of educating children at even a young age about autism. “That awareness is magic.”

But along with his praise, he did conclude there is still more work to be done, especially in regards to the country’s educational system. He encouraged incorporated reforms after the vocational education model, meaning providing hands on learning and experience rather than just having students sit in a classroom.

Robison placed great importance in learning in a community college setting, where there is more hands on learning involved, to be an important aspect in the education system. “Community colleges, because they are the closest thing to hands on learning in higher education, are a vital link to something we’ve lost in education.”

His story is inspiring, but completely realistic as he recounts his life, and how Asperger’s played a part in it all. Robison isn’t a well-educated scholar, who has studied the disability from a psychological standpoint and he was quick to admit this. What Robison is instead is a man who has lived through most of his life fighting against the odds and has come out victorious.

“Smart as you think you are testing a kid, telling him what he can’t do, fact is, you have no idea. Because I failed all those tests. Yet, here I am.”

Robison also briefly mentioned his recent resignation of his leadership position with Autism Speaks. Robison maintains the perspective that autism is not a disease like cancer and shouldn’t be emphasized by finding a “cure”. Instead, autistic individuals should be treated as creatively minded people, with different ways in seeing the world.

“You can’t eradicate autism without eradicating a vital part of society. They see autism more as a disease to be cured.”

Robison’s passion is evident in his message of awareness, but he also gives back a dignity to those who are living with autism. He is focused on giving them hope.

“I think of all the things I have done, going out and spreading a message of hope and promise for young people, families, and teachers, is probably the greatest thing that I have ever done,” Robison said.