Advocate for People with Autism Named a 2016 Difference Maker

Growing up, John Robison said he was called ‘lazy,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘retarded,’ ‘defective,’ and ‘no good,’ among other things.
In reality, he was none of the above. Rather, he was an individual with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Discovering this, he said, was both liberating and empowering, and he has devoted much of his time and energy over the past several years to helping others experience those same feelings.
He’s done this through three books on the subject of Asperger’s, countless speaking engagements to a host of audiences, and participation on a number of panels assigned the tasks of defining autism, treating it, and gaining benefits for those who suffer from it.
In recent years, his work has taken on a new focus — as a leader of a movement called neurological diversity, or neurodiversity, the idea that such diversity, just like ethnic or racial diversity, is part of humanity.
For these many forms of activism and involvement, Robision was named by BusinessWest magazine, HCN’s sister publication, as one of its Difference Makers for 2016.
Other honorees, to be saluted at the Difference Makers gala on March 31 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, include Michael J. Ashe Jr., Hampden County sheriff; Mike Balise, Balise Motor Sales, philanthropist (1965-2015); Big Brothers Big Sisters; and Carol Leary, president of Bay Path University.
Robison, owner of J.E. Robison Service, which specializes in sales and service of foreign cars, told BusinessWest that discovering that he had Asperger’s was a “transformative change.” He added that, with this knowledge and the empowerment that came with it, he became more accepted in the community and forged real friendships, and this helped inspire his gradual development as an advocate.
That work has taken several forms, from the books — Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby — to his speaking engagements, to creation of a program at his business to help those on the autism spectrum train to become auto mechanics.
Other forms of service — often opportunities and appointments created through the exposure generated by his books — include participation on several boards and commissions involved with autism treatment and policy.
Four years ago, Robison was asked by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to serve on the committee that produces the strategic plan for autism for the U.S. government; that appointment has since been renewed. He also serves on a panel that evaluates autism research for the U.S. Department of Defense as well as the steering committee for the World Health Organization developing ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health) core sets for autism-spectrum disorders.
He also served a stint on a review board with the National Institutes of Health, tasked with determining how economic-stimulus money in 2008 should be spent on autism research.
While doing all that, he also teaches a class in neurodiversity at the College of William & Mary, one of the first programs of its kind in the country.
The March 31 event will feature butlered hors d’oeuvres, lavish food stations, a networking hour, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the honorees. Tickets are $60 per person, with tables of 10 available.
For more information, or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or visit www.businesswest.com.