Monday, March 31, 2008

A state of the art vocational school

As we kick off national autism awareness month, I'm out doing my part. I wrote a short essay for CNN's I Report that you can read here:

I'm out there talking about autism, Asperger's, neurological differences, and making it in the world. I've got a bunch of speaking engagements in schools this month.

Some of the schools I visit focus on kids with neurological differences. Other time, I visit "regular" schools and talk about the diversity of the popuarion. With the prevelance of autism today, just about every kid knows someone on the spectrum.

This morning I spoke to the students at the Lower Pioneer Valley Education Collaborative in West Springfield.

LPVEC is a trade school; otherwise known as a vocational high school. Trade schools teach the skills we need to run the world . . . auto mechanics; carpentry; landscaping; hairdressing; retailing; and manufacturing. As our society has gotten more complex, it’s gotten more and more costly to teach these skills. As a result, fewer and fewer schools do it.

You regular blog readers know I’m a hands-on kind of guy, so this was my kind of school. I loved it.

Let me show you how they do things, in no particular order:

As an old-time computer hacker and geek, how could I miss the computer lab? We talked electronics, and I signed their server. "Geeks Rule the World!"

When I was going upstairs I saw this poster for a fundraiser they'd just done for the Flutie Foundation. I told them I'd just been at the Flutie Autism Conference, and I was proud to see them hard at work here.

Now, these guys are in a packaging design class. You can't see it real well, but they're standing in front of packaging they've made up for chocolates. The only thing was, being a school, it was imaginary chocolate. They did not feed me any. My only consolation was, they didn't get any chocolate either.

Here we have real-life toilet repair in the building maintenance classroom. You can see from the coloration that they have a real broken toilet there. Snicker all you want, but a good plumber can make an excellent living most anywhere.

This is the greenhouse. I'm sorry I don't have any students in the photo - they had just gone on lunch break and I was running loose, looting and pillaging.

And here we have a few more, sitting at their workstations.

This is a fashion design and retailing classroom. And we have future fashionistas in the picture. I'm not exactly sure what they are being trained to do here, but training of some sort was certainly going on, because the lights were off and a movie was playing when I walked in. And there was a teacher in there too, but she's not shown in the photo.

This is the automated machinery in the wood shop - it's a far cry from woodworking in my high school. Safer and cleaner too. Check out those floors.

And here we have the auto shop. This auto shop is cleaner and nicer than 99% of the commercial shops in my area.

This is the print shop, with two kids cleaning one of the presses

And here's an example of what they print - a calendar. The students did all the printing, and they too the pictures and did the layout. Very nice.

I like this shot. They have actually built a mockup two-story home in one of the big shops. Talk about full-scale teaching models!

One of the students, Rebecca, gave me two pages of questions to answer. . . . a written interview. I'll post her questions and my answers in my next blog post . . . stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The costs of raising kids on the spectrum

My friend Kim Stagliano has three daughters with autism. All three of her kids are significantly more autistic than I was at that age, so they're a real handful. She was just featured on Good Morning America, talking about their situation. The show talks about the costs and financial burdens associated with raising kids on the spectrum.

The show is in two parts. Here's tax Relief for the Disabled

Here's more:

In Connecticut, many towns pay for special school programs for kids who can't get by in the regular school system. But that's only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of cost. There's the cost and even impossibility of family vacations, the after-school programs, summer programs, and special training.

If a kid has an accident and loses the power of speech, the state will pay for programs to help them recover the ability to speak. But a kid with autism who never spoke . . . there are actually few if any resources for that child in many places.

My own life experience shows me that we (those of us on the spectrum) can learn to fit in and function better. And the earlier we get help with this, the more effective it can be. But how does the average family find the money?

I realize that I'm very lucky, because my impairments were fairly mild and I'm blessed with high intelligence and an ability to forge ahead on my own. What happens to the kids who don't have those advantages, and whose parents don't have the tens or hundreds of thousands to get them help?

I guess they do the best they can, with what they've got.

In some ways, families with more mildly impaired kids can be hurt worse. Why? Because the need for help is not so apparent. For example, no one would say Kim's kids are "just lazy." But that's exactly what teachers said about me. There are many kids like me in school today, and nothing whatsoever is offered to them, because schools do not even recognize their need.

Sometimes I wonder if public schools would rather stay blind, to save money.

I just spoke at a program for Lighthouse Academy in Groton, CT. They are a progressive place, and they're doing a lot for kids in their area. But they are one small school, and much more is needed.

Monday, March 24, 2008

What do editors do?

Every now and then at my speaking engagements, I get a literary question. Today’s question was, “What is the role of the editor in publishing a book?”

To answer that question, I will tell you the edited and abridged story of editors, me, and Look Me in the Eye.

In January of 2007, I had a manuscript about growing up as a misfit. It was complete, or so I thought. My agent said, “This is ready to show.”

Who to show it to? Editors, that’s who.

My agent has been in the business a good while, and he knows lots of editors. He asked himself, Which editors would like Robison’s book? He made a list, and started making phone calls. For you do not show a manuscript to Crown, or Putnam, or Harper Collins. You show it to a specific person, an editor. Who happens to work at a publisher.

The book business is very dependent upon personal relationships and connections. That said, you may ask, how does an unknown author get noticed? Much has to do with your agent. And what he says about you, or on your behalf. I won’t shock you with the shameless lies and exaggerations my own agent told to induce professionally skeptical editors to read my book. It’s enough to say, he succeeded. And that led to my first brush with editors.

Editors read new manuscripts. Then, if they like them, they pass them around the house. House being the publisher, not their residence. So that’s the first component of an editor’s job – reading and evaluating new work. If the other people in the house like the manuscript, they get together and formulate an offer. And it’s the editor’s job to convey that offer to the agent.

They call that job . . . Acquisitions.

Many of you know what an agent says to an offer. No matter what the number, he says, That’s all? I have twice that from your competition! I have a movie deal in the works! This is gonna be big! Ten million, minimum! This all happens in smoke filled rooms, out of the author’s sight. Authors are never supposed to see the back-room dealings between agents and editors. It’s too much for your gentle mind, they say.

I never saw any of that, but I know it’s true because I watch Entourage on HBO.

And that takes us to the editor’s next job. She bargains with agents, and acts as the publisher’s representative to acquire books they want. Note I say she, and not he. That’s because, as best I can tell, a majority of editors are female. I don’t know why, but there it is.

I have already related the story of meeting and selecting a publisher for Look Me in the Eye, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll jump ahead to the editor’s next job – arranging the book.

Rachel – my new editor - took my manuscript, and laid it in a long imaginary line. Then she made a chronology, and shuffled pieces around to get them in proper order. In the original book, I had a story of wrecking the car on page 50, and learning to drive on page 75. Her rearrangement fixed sequence errors like that, but it also highlighted holes in the story.

My editor highlighted the holes with little notes, What happened here?

Those “What happened heres?” called for a lot of new writing on my part. Three words for her, three hundred or three thousand for me. Multiply that by a hundred such notes, and you get an idea of the work involved.

She also made hundreds of little changes. Some were obvious results of rearrangement. In other cases, she took out repetitions and duplicate material. Sometimes, she fixed things that “just sounded funny.”

And sometimes I disagreed and we’d go back and forth and reach agreement.

She’d say, Can you explain this a bit better? And sometimes she’d challenge me. . . Can that be right? All of that, of course, led to more and better writing on my part. For the editor does not write. She edits. The writer writes. It’s a dance, back and forth, three or four or five times to get every passage just so.

All of these things made a huge difference. When I read the result, I said, This reads like something I’d buy in a bookstore! She had turned my manuscript into something professional. It was becoming a book.

Throughout all this, there are some things my editor DID NOT do. When reading a passage, she never said, "Can you make this more exciting?" She never asked me to exaggerate or embellish anything in the book. She took things or left them, as I wrote them. Every now and then, I read comments on the web, allegations that nameless editors "made" authors sensationalize their stories to sell more copies. In my experience, nothing remotely like that ever occurred for me.

Editors of serious non fiction take their work seriously. I would not doubt that an editor of novels - thrillers or fantasy - might make suggestions to "spice up" the story, but it certainly did not happen with my work.

Meanwhile, my editor had a few other things going on, on the side.

She’d been working with the Sales and Marketing people, to develop the literature to sell the book. She’d overseen the writing of the copy for the catalog, and the words on the jacket flap. She’d even tested titles on strangers, people off the street, and finally settled on Look Me in the Eye, the name we’d started with.

And one really big thing . . . .

She carried a copy of my book downstairs to the Graphic Arts people. She induced Whitney, the VP, to take on the cover project. And she was there to see the results. Today, everyone sees the result, but it was her work that made it all happen.

And that takes us to the next step, and the next person. People, actually, several of them.

My book next went to a copy editor, who took the Random House Style Manual in her left hand, and my fledgling book in her right, and Styled away. She was the one who placed the punctuation in the right spots, and italicized the right words just so, and made the proper names Proper.

I thought I had done all those things, but when I saw her little red pencil marks it was clear I hadn’t. But now it was done, and my book headed off to the next step – Names and Trademarks.

That’s where another tireless editor, deep within the Random House Empire, made sure all my names for things, people, and places were right. So even though I was sure President Nickson spelled his name that way, she changed it to Nixon. And when I said coke, she changed it to Coke. Why? Because they have a guidebook that tells them what names are what and what to do with trademarks and other such stuff.

Each name had a little red mark next to it, to signify that it had been checked and verified. There was some pretty arcane stuff there . . . names like FP40, an Amtrak locomotive, and 365 GTS, and antique Ferrari.

And then it was off to legal review, where I answered such questions as, Did the hooker have a name that you recall? Or, How does Bob Parker feel about his portrayal in the story? All of this, of course, was in an effort to avoid multi-million dollar lawsuits. And if lawsuits cannot be avoided, their secondary purpose was to ensure we would win.

They say the legal people use voodoo dolls to better their odds. However they do it, it’s worked so far.

And then, my editor folded all the work of those other editors and commenters into the final manuscript to make the finished text, which was sent to typesetting. But it only went to typesetting after another round of re-reading and checking on my part. Every step of the way, I have to check the results. We authors are untimately responsible for what gets published.

But the editor’s job was not done. The Project Management part of her job was just getting going. The next step: Producing the galleys, the proofs, and showing the book to the book buyers, at Book Expo America.

However, at 1,000 words, I am tired, so for tonight at least, I am done. I will write more on the role of the editor in my next post.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tales from the road

My brother and I have just returned from another speaking engagement, this one at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I’d like to thank Nik, Jessa, and the rest of the program folks for being such wonderful hosts. And I’d like to thank all of you who came out to see us.

I do most speaking engagements alone, so the ones with my brother are kind of a refreshing change. Somehow, the audience changes when we're both there. People whose brothers are Aspergians ask me questions. People whose brothers are herion addicts ask him questions. Other people ask us both questions. And then there are those who hoot and yell without asking any questions. Finally, there are the literary people. Folks ask my brother literary questions. For some reason, no one asks me literary questions. Perhaps I'm too logical. If I were at a Star Trek convention, I wouldn't ask Mister Spock literary questions, either.

And then we signed books, for 45 minutes. I always wish we could go faster, but it just doesn't seem to happen. I feel bad for those people waiting all the way to the end, but they always seem jolly so I guess it's OK.

I’ll be speaking next week, too. Monday I’m at the Lighthouse School in Groton Ct, and Friday I’m at the Flutie Foundation conference west of Boston. Saturday, I have a library program right here in South Hadley. Look to the schedule on the right sidebar > > for details.

While in Boulder, I had dinner with Doreen Orion (author of Queen of the Road;) Kristin Nelson (literary agent;) Kim Reid (author of No Place Safe;) and Bella Stander (publicity consultant.)

Here’s Kim’s book:

Doreen is anxiously awaiting the release of her new book:

At dinner, Kristin mentioned the snake story in my book, and Kim piped up with snake stories of her own. She too grew up around Atlanta, near water, and near snakes. We killed them with hoes, she said. And she proceeded to tell us of the time a water moccasin popped out of a hanging planter while her mom was watering the plant.

I don’t know what it was, but her comment took me back 45 years, to my Grandmother and Dandy out in the farm’s garden with those hoes. They’d work the garden, and without missing a beat, chop the head of any poisonous snakes they met. Then, they’d keep hoeing. I remember how Dandy would sharpen the hoes on a grinder so the edges were like cleaver blades, just for that reason.

I have a hoe up here, but I have never needed it. Personally, I lack Kim’s confidence in them. My grandmother (and presumably Kim) was always quick, but I remember Gerald. He wasn’t quick enough, and an angry snake climbed up his hoe handle quick as lightning, and bit him good. That was after Dandy died, and the hoes had gotten dull.

And that is why I used a gun, not a hoe, to deal with water moccasins on the farm.

You never know what strange things people will say. There are no snake stories in Kim’s book, but I recommend it anyway. Her mother worked in the District Attorney’s during the years of the Wayne Williams serial killings. At the time, we were both living in Atlanta – Kim with her parents, me with my grandparents. Who’d have guessed we’d meet up thirty years later in Boulder?

We stopped briefly in Washington DC on the way to Colorado. And that was where it happened. My luggage went one way, and I went another. And thanks to that chance event, I got to meet the United Airlines Lost Baggage staff, all the way across the world in India.

They were not one bit of help, but they were very polite. Everyone I spoke to was quick to reassure me, as in this particularly noteworthy passage:

Yes, sir, I understand. You are unhappy. You are there, and I am here. You are cold, and I am warm. And you wish it were spring. Yes. I am sorry for you too. That fellow made me wonder if Dr. Seuss had really grown up in India.

And that pretty much summed it up. I called six times, and never once got a straight answer about my luggage.

I am sorry sir, the airport does not answer the telephone. Perhaps they are busy delivering your bag. Yes, perhaps your baggage is out with a delivery service right this minute. Perhaps you should call us back in three hours, and all will be better.

And when that didn’t work,

I am so sorry sir, but instead of your bag, may I offer you a gift? I would like to send you a certificate for twenty five dollars, good on your next United flight. That would make you so happy? Yes, sir!

Needless to say, that did not make me happy. Luckily, I was able to recover my luggage from the baggage office at the Denver airport in time to fly home with it. At least it all turned out well. The Untited staff at the airport were also polite, but unlike the call center staff in India, they got results.

And now I am home again.

Monday, March 17, 2008

I'm off to Colorado

My brother and I will be appearing at the University of Colorado in Boulder this evening, March 17th. Come by and say hi if you can. We're in the Glenn Miller Ballroom, and the public is welcome.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cameras and math skills

Here’s a quote from a popular photography handbook from 1944. This is a book for amateur photographers, not professionals or engineers.

How much longer do you have to make the exposure if you close the aperture from f3.5 to f4.5? Divide the square of 4.5 by the square of 3.5 and you will find with the smaller aperture you must expose 1.67 times as long. Always keep this rule in mind.

That was written at a time when every high school graduate learned enough math to square and divide numbers. We like to think today’s kids have that skill, too, but when I showed that passage to several people here, more than half did not know how to calculate the answer.

Now, look in today’s photography handbooks. You won’t find any calculations. Instead, you find rules of thumb. For example, sixty years later, a 2004 manuals says:

Each click of the aperture ring doubles the exposure. If you need an exposure of 1/60 at f2, you’ll need 1/30 at the next stop, which is f2.8.

By the old formula, we calculate that the exposure must be 1.96 times longer. Using today’s rule, we double it. Both get us essentially the same answer, provided the conditions stay the same. That is, if every lens is marked 2.0, then 2.8. But some lenses are different. What if the lens is marked in fractional stops; 2.0, 2.2, 2.4?

In that scenario, the guy with the formula would get a correct exposure but the guy with a rule would be lost. And that is the value of math. If you know how to calculate the answer, you will never be lost. So why do we ridicule people with math skill? Why is math a “geek class” in high school?

Hobbyist books from 50 years ago are full of math. Hobbyist books today are devoid of math. Why? The need to perform calculation has not gone away. But it has been automated. Fifty years ago, a photographer had to understand exposure calculations because he had to set the camera’s aperture and shutter. Today’s cameras do that for us. And for most people, the result is better exposed pictures. Electronics has replaced math intelligence 99% of the time, for 99% of the people. One insidious result is less capable people.

I'm sure you have experienced the cashier who stands there, frozen and terrified, because she rang up your purchase, then punched $10 for payment, but you handed her a $20. * * * Look of Terror * * * What is the correct change??

We’re on a slippery slope here, letting machines do our calculating for us.

The lack of math skills, and the popular contempt for kids who love math, is dangerous.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Monarch School - a gentle and safe place

I’ve been to quite a few schools since the release of Look Me in the Eye. Wednesday was one more school appearance, this one in scenic downtown Houston. Something about the Monarch School was different, though. I could feel it right away.

The Monarch school felt gentle, and safe.

I don’t have a very good social sense. I can’t read people’s faces or tell what they are thinking. That said, my ability to sense safety and danger is excellent. Why would that be? I don’t know. Temple Grandin says the autistic mind is closer in some ways to animals. She thinks this sense of danger is more basic, more animal. Perhaps she’s right.

And I could just feel it at Monarch. The place was safe. And I'd like to clarify something with respect to the other schools - they did not feel dangerous. But they lacked the safe and gentle feeling I found at Monarch. At least, that's true for me. There's a difference between places that feel "not dangerous" and places that feel "gentle and safe."

Last week, there was some lively discussion about Billy in the movie Billy the Kid, and why he looked around like a hunted animal in certain scenes of that movie. Indeed, I described him as a hunted animal, while others contended that his look was nothing more than a common autistic behavior.

Well, at the Monarch school, the difference was evident. The kids there looked around, but their gazes lacked the anticipation of danger. I could feel it myself. It’s just an instinctive thing; I know it but it’s hard to articulate. They looked around, but the expressions were subtly different from what I saw on Billy's face in the movie, and different from how I remember my own school experience.

When I spoke to the students, I mentioned this, and I think they saw it too. At my talk Wednesday night, at the United Way Community Center, I brought it up again.

We need more schools with that safe feeling.

I don’t what they did to bring this about, but whatever it is, it’s a remarkable achievement.

After visiting the school, I went on a little tour. I’d like to take you with me, via some photos of my trip. First, check out the potted plant in front of the Art Museum – a far cry from the snow and ice and frozen plants back home

Things are already looking green and lush, as you can see from this view of the street outside my hotel:

Houston has a fine light rail system, and it passes right by the museum. It's clean and modern. The cars roll silently on welded rail, which is set artistically into the pavement with decorative stone. Here’s one now:

Next, I headed for the Houston Ship Channel. With the post-9-11 security, it’s hard to get close but you can see the channel from the Battleship Texas park site. Here’s the Texas:

Here’s one of the quad 40mm antiaircraft guns that was added in WWII:

The Ship Channel is one of the busiest waterways in the world. It was teeming with motorized aquatic life the whole time I was there. At one point, I counted five tugs in motion at once, all on separate missions. Here's a tug moving two bargeloads of petroleum product:

Here’s a tanker headed into port. To my surprise, there were no tugs tethered to provide control in case she lost steering. Why don’t they do that? I don’t know.

I will close with this. Many of you have heard the phrase, “Better living through chemistry.” This is where it originates:

Monday, March 3, 2008

I'm headed to Houston and then Boulder

This Wednesday I’ll be appearing at Monarch School in Houston. From noon to four, I’ll be visiting with the school on Wirt Road. After that, at 6:30, I’ll be speaking at the United Way Community Resource Center, at 50 Waugh Drive. If you’re near Houston, stop by and say hi.

Here's a link to the school’s site:

Click here for more info and click here to register for this exciting event! Ask me about evaluations and other services available through The Monarch Diagnostic Clinic - visit our website at

Ten days later, I'll be heading for Colorado, where I'll be appearing with my brother Augusten Burroughs at CU Boulder. We'll be in the Glenn Miller Ballroom. The public is welcome, and tickets are available here: