( So what has changed in John Robison’s life since 2008?
His 2008 memoir, Look Me in the Eye, made him famous. (See review below.) Many requests for conference appearances and speaking engagements followed as he became a public face of Asperger’s. He wrote two more books that further developed his thoughts. Be Different (2011) expounds on his belief that the “strength” of Asperger’s minds should be valued, even as social skills are fostered and learned. After meeting so many fellow “Aspergians” and their families seeking to find the confidence Robison exhibits, he was compelled to write this book as advice for his “Aspie” peers, their friends, family and teachers.
He also wrote Raising Cubby (2013) about life with his son who is also on the spectrum with what Robison calls Asperger’s. The brilliant subtitle captures the author’s loving and exasperated tone throughout — A father and son’s adventures with Asperger’s, trains, tractors, and high explosives.
But then Robison’s life and world changed beyond imagination. This is the rest of the story that he tells in Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening (2016).
At one of his many public appearances, Robison was approached by Lindsay Oberman, a post doc researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She explained that a group at Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation was seeking adult volunteers on the autism spectrum to be part of a project on improving emotional intelligence.
Robison, always open to learning anything and particularly about the mystery of his Asperger’s mind, was game.
So began his astounding experience with TMS — Transcranial magnetic stimulation. Switched On is, in Robison’s style, a memoir of his journey into this new arena. But he also dives into the realm of neuroscience. Robison sought to learn as much as he could about the TMS process and brain function. Sharing all of this with his readers makes this book a slower go. That said, the technical aspects enhance understanding of the dramatic changes that turn his life and world inside out.
For instance, after a TMS session, he “felt” music for the first time in his life. Even with years of working as a sound engineer for rock bands, and more recently, as a photographer with access to the “front of the room” at major concerts, he suddenly was moved to tears by lyrics of a familiar song. This dramatic moment, which opens the book, was his first inkling that TMS was indeed changing his brain.
Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the MD-PhD head of the staff at Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation is a cognitive and behavioral neurologist. In the foreword of Switched On he writes that his mission “is to help patients affected by various neurological and psychiatric condition, including autism epilepsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or drug resistant depression.” The center’s intent with Robison and with many other subjects, including Robison’s son Cubby, was not to “cure autism” but rather “to learn more about the fundamental mechanisms of brain function in individuals with autism spectrum.”
But as Robison writes, “brain plasticity is the ongoing capacity of the brain and the nervous system to change itself.” TMS stimulated his brain to “rewire” and changed his emotional intelligence.
So are you thinking of the memorable Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes? Robison did a lot of thinking about that fictional character as he wondered and worried that what he was experiencing would also fade.
But the ability to feel emotions and to relate to people “normally” did not abate, both for the good and the bad. Dealing with a death in his family without the insulation from emotion inflicted terrible pain he had never before felt. Relationships that had been forged and cemented by his Asperger’s self —broke apart, causing him sadness he had never experienced, even in the worst moments of his childhood.
The good, however, is immeasurable. He enters into a new relationship that blossoms into a very happy — albeit unconventional — family. His photography – always admired for composition and realism – “like the soup containers on the grocery store shelves” – now, he reflects, “are like Warhol soup cans.” Brighter, vibrant less real and more emotive.
Towards the end of the book Robison writes, “Sometimes I felt as if I had been turned upside down and shaken, even though any direct effects of TMS had long since dissipated…I still feel significantly changed when compared to my pre-TMS self.” Friends and family who know him well, and those who encounter Robison infrequently, have the same response. “You’ve changed.”
One person who has known Robison well over the course of his many years in the music world, told Robison that he always admired Robison’s work. “But you were also difficult, abrasive, and socially inept. I actually avoided you. Then, a few years ago, you changed, and it was dramatic, to say the least. Now you’re a sociable and likable person that I seek out.”
The most significant part of this book is Robison’s discussion of the “what’s next.” As he maintained in the conclusion of Look Me in the Eye, Robison again embraces his Asperger’s, providing insights into how his brain works. For example, he could hear minute vibrations in sound systems, he “hears” engines of finely tuned cars, and he senses — in a split second — a moment that he captures on film. He refers to his friend, Temple Grandin, who has been able to explain to “normal” brains how her brain see pictures and processes connections almost instantaneously, and how she “understands” what animals are feeling and communicating.
Do we really want to “fix” this type of mind? Should everyone be “neurotypical?”
Robison is fearful of “early identification,” saying that “Most of the exceptional things I’ve done in my life were facilitate by my being autistic. What if all that had been wiped away by early intervention?”
He states, “The problem comes when we presume all difference is disability, and it’s not.” Those who work closely with gifted children and adults recognize traits that too often are labeled ADHD, or “on the spectrum.” Forget the labels. Work with the abilities that are evident and celebrate the differences. Address the weaknesses – social behaviors, for example — and build on all the abilities these unique brains possess.
Robison continues to be a remarkable man doing amazing things. Now in his 50s, Robison is energized to pursue his next steps. He is concerned about the dysfunction and inefficiency in how research is funded that keeps projects separate and too often secreted. Then, too, is the problem of specialization, noting that one researcher cannot possibly keep up with information in other fields.
In this complicated system, Robison sees a role he can fill. “I began to see myself as a possible bridge, because I am not a scientist and I’m not in conflict or competition with any of the researchers.” From his now extensive network, Robison can see “technological combinations” and connect those who are able to capitalize on multiple strands of research.
He has embraced this role in the autism and neurodiversity movement which led to his appointment as William & Mary’s Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence, developing the first neurodiversity program at a major American university.
He is part of advisory boards that shape research, and he advises a group at Yale as part of an NIH biomarkers consortium. He is on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, for the US government. He was a member of the steering committee for the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) Core Sets for Autism initiative for the World Health Organization.
And he still services cars.
I wrote a column, Book Notes, for many years for local central NJ weeklies. Newspapers are a dying breed, but the desire to share thoughts on books lives on.