Scott Robertson has always known that he was different. He had difficulty making friends at school. Other kids made fun of him for the odd way he had trouble holding his arm steady when raising his hand in class, calling him names like “retard.” Another boy once told him that he was so weird he shouldn’t exist. He didn’t understand why he had so much difficulty with things that seemed to come so easily to other people.
Then he was assigned to write a paper about autism during his freshman year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He found a list detailing the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, and suddenly realized why he struggled so much. Five years later, in 1999, he went through testing at the Psychological Clinic at Penn State, where his diagnosis was confirmed.
He spent the next several years actively learning the social skills that did not come naturally to him. There were no books or online courses designed to help people with Asperger’s learn social skills back then, so he created his own personal curriculum. He studied character’s expressions on television shows to decipher the emotions behind them. He listened to radio shows to determine how changes in volume and pitch indicated emotion and meaning. He observed the people around him, like an anthropologist.
Today he serves as vice-president of the international Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, and as a member of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Autism Services. He works to promote the unique strengths of people with autism, and to advocate for cultural changes that will allow society to be more welcoming to people on the autism spectrum. He says,
“If you ask people on the street about autism, they’ll think of children, as though we must disappear as adults.”
His goal is to spread awareness of the challenges adults with autism face in higher education and the workforce, and to work with others to create programs that will help them live independent, successful lives, such as housing options, job coaching, and coaching for social relationships.
He dreams of creating a personal digital assistant, or PDA, that offers social guidance and help with planning and organizing.
“Online communication is to autistic people what American Sign Language is to deaf people,” he says. “It levels the playing field.” He goes on to say, “I don’t want a cure for autistic people. A lot of things people see as weaknesses can be strengths, like the ability to concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. “
Robertson admits that it’s unlikely that he’ll ever feel at home in the non-autistic world, even with the training and support systems, but he wouldn’t change who he is.
“It’s important to be accepting of myself instead of pushing against it and trying to make myself ‘normal.’ I’m not normal. My brain is always going to be atypical. The difficulty I’ve had in life is how to work on adapting but hold onto myself at the same time. I want to preserve what makes me me.”
To hear more about what Roberston has to say visit Conversations from Penn State or view the opening segment below: