“In my writing and speaking I had said that my autism was a way of being, that it was part of who I was. That it wasn’t a disease and there was no need for a cure. I still believed that, but I also believed in being the best I could be, particularly by addressing the social blindness that had caused me the most pain throughout my life.” — John Elder Robison, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening (2016)
I first became familiar with John Elder Robison through his 2007 book Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s. That story chronicles his struggle as a highly intelligent and socially inept boy and young man to an eventual diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at the age of 40 when he’s a husband and a father. The diagnosis was a relief to him. “I have moved from being weird to being eccentric. And let me tell you, it’s a lot better to be eccentric,” he wrote. His diagnosis and ensuing self-study led him to champion the idea that ASD can contribute to exceptional creativity and genius.
Look Me in Eye was one of the first in a happily growing number of books by adults with ASD who offer insight into the minds and feelings of less expressive people with autism. That list also includes Dr. Temple Grandin, Daniel Tammet, Donna Williams and Kamran Nazeer. These writers have help us better understand those with autism who struggle with relationships and communication.
Robison’s latest book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening recounts his participation in an early transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) study that researchers hoped would help people with ASD better read emotions in others.
Robison began TMS — a noninvasive method of brain stimulation — in 2008. His initial response was far more dramatic than researchers predicted and the experience proved to be life changing for him. “All I know is that the unintended side affects overshadowed by a thousand fold anything they’d set out to test and measure,” he writes.
Following the first session of TMS, Robison is overcome with emotion while listening to a favorite recording from his days as a sound engineer in the 1970s. (For those who haven’t read Look Me in the Eye, Robison dropped out of high school and fell into a career as a self-taught sound engineer for bands like KISS. He became sought after for his expertise with amplifiers and sound equipment, a skill he attributes to his ASD.) While he’d always had an exceptional technical appreciation of music — actually seeing it in a kind of synesthesia — he had never felt the emotion of music before. “Now I found myself bursting into tears when I heard a beautiful song,” he writes.
During the months of the study, Robison has other notable experiences, including an inexplicable series of hallucinations during a sleepless night following one round of TMS and, more significantly, the growing ability to feel other people’s emotions and communicate his own. He senses a change in his prosody, or voice inflection, and notices an improvement in his communication skills with others. Friends, employees and customers at his auto repair shop notice too. Following the study’s completion, Robison struggles to maintain his new abilities and cope with major changes they brought to his relationships — both good and bad.
The concept of TMS is fascinating, but I especially liked Switched On for Robison’s personal story. His voice, as in Look Me in the Eye, captures the funny and sad events that unfold as he works toward introspection. For example, he recounts his impulse to howl along with a passing ambulance — an action he wouldn’t have questioned if his neuro-typical wife hadn’t been there to comment. Or when his newfound emotional clarity reveals that a man he’d thought of as a longtime friend was actually consistently unkind to him.
Because my own sister has severely limited communication, I deeply appreciate a point Robison makes early in the book. “There are a few scientist who assume autistic people lack empathy and emotion completely. That sure doesn't describe me! … I have a hard time believing that I’m the exception to the rule and that other autistic people are emotionless automatons.”
His words will ring to true to anyone who loves someone with ASD. In my own experience with Margaret, I see her emotions as misdirected or rerouted somehow. She would laugh when she saw one of us crying as children. Driving in the car after not seeing her for a while, I’ll notice she is crying, soundlessly. And when I ask her why, she’ll just say she wants a hug and then she’ll give me a sweet smile. She’s just as likely to shove me ten seconds later, looking angry. And then apologize and ask for a hug, smiling. And repeat. What is going on here? I can’t know. She can’t tell me. But it’s emotion — love, sadness, anger, delight, all snarled up in her lovely complicated brain.
In addition to Switched On and Look Me In The Eye, Robison is the author of Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian and Raising Cubby: A Father and Son’s Adventures with Asperger’s, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives. To read more of his work, check out his Psychology Today blog, My Life With Asperger’s.