John Elder Robison is the owner and operator of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts, which has grown to be one of the most successful independent repair businesses in all of New England. He specializes in Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor car work, known nationally for his restoration and customization work. But the road John traveled to arrive at this lofty position was long, frustrating, and filled with barriers that most of us would find insurmountable.
Labeled a social misfit from early childhood, John Elder Robison had a tough time fitting in from day one. He was acutely aware that other children didn’t like him but didn’t really know why. Even his teachers didn’t quite get him, telling him he wasn’t going to amount to anything. He wouldn’t get closure on the answers he sought for several more decades, when he was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 40. The truth has set him free, but it took a long time to get there.
Tale of Two Passions
A few years back, John wondered how he could blend his two callings as a car repair junkie and fearless advocate for Asperger’s. The answer? By starting an automotive vocational program for youth on the autism spectrum. In 2013, he founded a training school for autistic children to teach them the auto repair trade. It’s called the TCF Automotive Program, the result of a collaboration between Robison Service Center and NCYF’s Tri-County Schools (TCS). TCF is also located in Springfield, adjacent to John’s repair facility.
Students learn the trade through a combination of hands-on experience and classroom instruction as they take on the technical skills required to maintain and repair vehicles of all kinds. In addition, it teaches them valuable social skills that they will need to succeed in the workforce and indeed in life. Thanks to small class sizes and individualized attention, students can go on to receive a diploma from their referring school district, a certificate from TCS, and assistance to locate jobs or transition to college.
So, what WAS wrong with John growing up? An obsession with routine, an apparent lack of empathy and inappropriate facial expressions topped the list. As he navigated through childhood, he was labeled many things – a sociopath to name one. He found it difficult to look people in the eyes, and that didn’t sit well with everyone. He withdrew even more, preferring his own company and his routines to that of being with others.
He dropped out of high school and quickly found an outlet for his unique abilities: repairing machines of all kinds. Unlike people, John could relate to machines. They didn’t pull surprises, they weren’t tough to figure out, they didn’t lie and they weren’t devious like some people in his life could be.
A Love for Machines
One of those machines that he found irresistible to tinker with? Electric guitars. He soon found he had a calling of making electric guitars sound and perform better. That talent took him all the way to the rock band Kiss, which hired him to do funky things with their instruments – make guitars screech, blow up, shoot pyrotechnics – you name it.
While exciting for a time, John realized life on the road with a rock band wasn’t his ultimate calling in life. That’s when he turned his attention to cars. Owners of expensive car makes and models would come to him for his fearless ability to do what no other mechanic could do. This was great for his income and his connections in the community, but what it really brought into his life was some clarity and closure.
One day, a therapist walked into the shop and they struck up a friendship. Over time, his newfound friend would introduce him to Asperger’s Syndrome, considered a high functioning type of autism characterized by obsession with repeated behaviors and trouble with social situations.
It took him till the age of 40 but he finally had an answer for what he was going through: he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Someone had finally validated what he had been struggling with all his life.
Embracing the Answers
Armed with the knowledge of his diagnosis, and feeling pretty grateful for being able to put a name with the condition he had suffered with for so long, John turned to the written word. This propensity for writing is in his blood, as his brother Augusten Burroughs is the best selling author of “Running with Scissors,” a 2002 memoir outlining his dysfunctional childhood. It was later turned into a movie, but perhaps more importantly in John’s eyes – it inspired him to write his own New York Times bestseller called “Look Me in the Eye,” as well as subsequent books.
John has been empowered by his diagnosis and works hard to understand it, to help others and to spread awareness through speaking engagements and workshops. He is also active on boards and committees of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, Autism Speaks, and many universities and colleges throughout the country.
But his other passion still lies in working with machines. That’s why he founded TCF. Helping kids is something John takes great pride in, especially since he never received that kind of help when he was their age. From problem child to accomplished author and entrepreneur, John Elder Robison is giving back in the best ways he knows how.