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A Champion Of Neurodiversity

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Bay Path Welcomes Visiting Professor of Practice John Elder Robison

Since his diagnosis at the age of 40, John Elder Robison has embraced his Asperger’s syndrome as a positive force in his life. It has empowered him to appreciate and accept the differences that define him, and others like him. Once Robison discovered he was on the neurodiversity spectrum, a continuum that includes autism, ADHD and other learning disabilities, he became almost missionary in his quest to enlighten the world to the contributions of individuals with autism.

The concept of neurodiversity is not new. In fact, Harvey Blume popularized the word in a 1998 issue of The Atlantic, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind.” Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger made a similar observation as early as 1938. Fast forward to 2017, where the concept of diversity has taken center stage in the workplace and the community.

Just as diversity implies an openness to people of other religions, races and ethnic backgrounds, neurodiversity is best reflected in the words of Robison in a recent BusinessWest article, “…now we recognize that conditions like autism have always been with us, and we recognize that some autistic people are profoundly disabled—and indeed I’m disabled in many ways. But I’m also gifted in other ways, and that’s what people need to understand; autistic people have unique contributions to make to the world because of their difference, and the world needs that.”

In truth, Robison’s personal background and achievements would be the envy of many people. A high school dropout, he designed sound equipment and had Pink Floyd and KISS as his clients. He was a staff engineer at Milton Bradley, and then became a chief of a power-systems division for a military laser company. His next move was strikingly entrepreneurial: he founded JE Robison Service, a company specializing in the high-end repair and restoration of such automotive gems as Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and even Maseratis, to name a few.

Incredibly, he had the time to be a best-selling New York Times author, penning four books including the groundbreaking memoir Look Me in the Eye and the compelling Switched On, a chronicle of his participation in Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s pioneering study using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to enhance emotional intelligence. 

Robison will bring all this and more to Bay Path in both graduate and undergraduate classrooms. While Robison’s path seems unusual today, he points out that the idea of self-education is as old as our species. Today, we think it unusual that someone might teach themselves engineering and other skills in succession, but in fact schools have only existed for a small fraction of human history. We have engineered and created things throughout our time on earth. Autistic people may be nature’s engineers, he says, as he points to the autistic abilities to hyper-focus, concentrate, and sweep in and integrate new knowledge.

"We are so pleased to welcome John Robison to our campus to share his insights with our students," states Dr. Liz Fleming, Associate Provost & Dean of the School of Education, Human & Health Sciences. “John is a gifted speaker who invariably moves our students to come up to him after his presentations to relate their own experiences in and out of the classroom, and state how deeply impacted they are by his life journey. He is the rising voice for diversity and speaks to our universal need for inclusion. John invariably makes everyone laugh and cry, but, most importantly, his message is that everyone has unique contributions to make in this world, and we need to embrace this thinking.”

John Robison’s reputation as a respected advocate for Asperger’s and autism is far reaching and unflagging. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Department of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (a school for teens with developmental challenges), and he is also working to redefine how courts treat and sentence individuals on the autism spectrum. For the more than 3.5 million people in the United States with some form of autism (CDC 2014), John Elder Robison is their champion. 

John Elder Robison and Bay Path University will be profiled in an upcoming HBO Vice segment. Stay tuned!