Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Switched On, by John Elder Robison

As many people with autism, and their advocates, will tell you, although autism is considered a disability, it can also be considered a gift.  David Burns affirmed in his recent book, Do Lemons Have Feathers? that he considers autism "a gift and advantage."  So when people talk about a cure for autism, it seems misguided, perhaps even offensive.

John Elder Robison was not seeking a cure for his autism, but when he was asked to participate in a study treating autism with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), he jumped in.  I had read Robison's book Raising Cubby, about his and his son's lives with Asperger's, so I was familiar with Robison's brilliance and giftedness in music production, auto repair, and other fields.  Robison was particularly interested on the impact TMS might have on a trait he shares with many autistic individuals, social awkwardness.

Robison is not a doctor or neuroscientist, so Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Social Awakening should not be taken as medically prescriptive.  Rather, it's Robison's story of how having directed electrical impulses shot into his brain (to put it crudely) affected his very personality.  TMS is being used to treat people with depression; the treatment of people with autism is expanding, but is still experimental.

The results, for Robison, were astounding.  He gained levels of emotional awareness and connection with other people that he had never before experienced.  He also experienced music and color in a way that had escaped him.  Some of the effects, like the connections to music, ended up being temporary.  But the changes in his personality, in terms of interacting with people, having empathy for others, and reading emotions, expressions, and body language, stuck.  He concludes that he's "gone from being a machine person who interfaced with humans when he had to to a people person who understands technology."

As enthusiastic as he is for the promise of TMS for the treatment of autism, he acknowledges that there are dangers.  In his case, it led to his divorce.  On another level, he wonders if, had he been treated with TMS as a child, would he have been more social, thus stifling his interest in machines and music.  While TMS might help autistic people become more successful in relationships with others, could it cost them other traits, or cause them not to develop other gifts?  In telling his story, Robison raises these questions, while offering his perspective and experiences as a guide.

Robison is a pleasure to read.  His quirkiness comes through, yet he communicates so well what the experience of living with autism is like.  If for nothing else, autistic individuals and their friends and family will want to read Switched On and Robison's other books for his unique perspective.  But at a greater level, they will want to read Switched On for a glimpse of TMS and what it may promise.  As Robison writes, "We are truly on the brink of a new era for treatment of the mind."

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A memoir

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