Switched On | John Elder Robison
Kernel Deborah Day reviews SWITCHED ON from John Elder Robison. A book applauded and loved by everyone who reads it, a book with incredible insights into autism and science from a man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Kernel Deb explains it all in much better detail than myself so enjoy her fine review. SWITCHED ON is out now from the folks at Scribe Australia. You should find this in most bookstores or you can obtain it HERE. All the best…………..JK.
BY DEBORAH DAY
John Elder Robison is an American author, photographer, mechanic, electronics enthusiast, businessman, family man, and neurodiversity advocate. SWITCHED ON is an intelligent, insightful, self-reflective account of his life during and after his participation in a clinical trial involving Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) in autistic adults. The book was written seven years after participation so the effects of the TMS had faded, but even so it is clear that participation was life changing for him. Robison is a layperson but he does a sterling job communicating the medical and ethical issues with clarity and his personal experiences with humour and poignancy.
Robison’s previous autobiographical books introduced him to the world. His first novel LOOK ME IN THE EYE was written after discovering he had Asperger’s Syndrome. In this novel he looked back at the first few decades of his life using his new diagnosis as the prism to examine and explain his lifelong affinity with mechanics, electronics, and sound, along with his difficult social interactions. In the subsequent BE DIFFERENT Robison’s main theme was that people on the autistic spectrum should be seen as different, not defective, pointing out that not all difference is disability. Sometimes differences result in exceptional abilities, either because disability in one area is offset by brilliance in another, or because loneliness as a consequence of social exclusion can generate hours of solitary focused effort to master subjects or acquire technical expertise.
Robison pragmatically crafted a successful life for himself despite having Asperger’s Syndrome. His stilted manner, pedantic speech and emotional detachment made him good in a crisis but also contributed to some people perceiving him to be difficult. He describes slowly but surely learning some appropriate social responses, assisted by the advice of friends and family. Despite their assistance however he remained acutely aware that he was often effectively blind to the unspoken cues that modulate human interactions related to body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, so after his diagnosis, he became and remains to this day, an active advocate for autism awareness.
This context is important because Robison with his interest in mechanics and electronics was uniquely predisposed to participate in a study that involved stimulating brain circuitry, not because he wanted to “fix” himself but rather to understand why his brain was different. The researchers in SWITCHED ON did explain that the study participation was not a treatment for autism, and emphasised that TMS could result in brain changes, both good and bad. Despite the forewarning, participation shakes Robison’s logical Spock-like existence to its core in clear positive and negative ways.
On the positive side SWITCHED ON describes how TMS enhances Robison’s sensory capabilities reigniting his appreciation of music, deepening his colour perception thereby changing the colour palate and composition of his photographs, and increasing his insight into the emotional content in news stories or other media. On a practical level he gradually found it was easier to look people in the eyes, pick up social cues, to be empathic, and be more relaxed in his interactions with strangers. He noted that he had more vocal range, prosody and expression. In essence he charts his transition from a talented, abrasive and socially inept man that was respected but often only tolerated, into a sociable eccentric welcomed as a colleague and friend. Robison summarises the transition as “I used to be a machine person that interfaced with humans” whereas now I’m a “people person who understands technology.”
The profoundly negative aspect of his new-found emotional awareness was that Robison was abruptly catapulted into a world where he saw people as they actually are, not as he imagined them to be. Without the protective shield of autism Robison initially felt overwhelmed by people’s negative emotions especially their unhappiness, anger and distress. This was especially true in his marriage, with his wife Martha who retreated deeper into depression as she found herself displaced from her role as emotional interpreter.
The acquisition of emotional intelligence also undermines his contentment with his previously safe stable life by showing him all the things he’d done wrong as a parent, husband and friend. It also allows him to fully appreciate the extent to which his childhood was marred by his mother’s psychotic episodes and father’s destructive alcohol use. The consequent grief Robison experiences is heartfelt. Luckily Robison is a resilient man and his personal journey in SWITCHED ON involves several ultimately successful transitions.
Quite apart from Robison’s personal issues, SWITCHED ON also explores some of the ethical issues hotly debated in advocacy forums. For example if TMS becomes an approved treatment for autism should early intervention be encouraged? And if so, for whom? On one hand early intervention could be more effective if given when brain plasticity is high, preventing more disability, but on the other hand early intervention could result in the blunting or prevention of unique abilities, or lead to the overtreatment of children who would never actually need treatment. Would treatment result in less neurodiversity? If so, this could be counterproductive for human speciation. The challenge then for neuroscientists is how to apply their research ethically so that neural enhancement to reduce disability does not destroy adaptive differences.
SWITCHED ON is written in Robison’s inimitable style with moments of both terrible grief and sublime happiness expressed with honesty. It has more technical detail, more existential rumination, and the content by its very nature packs a bigger emotional punch than his previous novels. I really liked Robison’s previous books but I loved this one because of this complexity and depth. SWITCHED ON is a book for anyone who enjoys a good biography or who likes to read about science, or brain and autism research.
Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science fiction, black comedy and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.
** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.