This weekend, I finished listening to John Elder Robison’s Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening. This is the second book I’ve read by Robison, the first of which was Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.
Switched On recounts Robison’s experience in a study that looked at his brain’s reaction to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). As someone with a disorder listed on the Autism Spectrum, he had always struggled with understanding and expressing emotions. This treatment was designed to get him “in touch with his emotional side,” so to speak. He had a positive, though not “cured,” reaction to this treatment, which is perhaps evidenced best by the fact that he reads his own audiobook with a certain level of inflection and intonation you would not expect from someone with Asperger’s.
This book was a stretch for me, which is why I chose to listen to it on audiobook. The language was extremely technical, as Robison himself is most comfortable in the world of machines and electronics. He compared his brain experience to his work in the music industry, which was interesting although impossible for me to understand. Some of the technical jargon and scientific language was also difficult to follow. While at times I worried this would detract from my understanding of what the memoir was trying to say, however, in the end I felt like I connected to Robison at the point where his voice took us. The overarching message and story was very engaging and emotionally charged, as Robison expresses for the first time what it feels like to “feel” like other people do.
I personally take as many opportunities as I can to learn more about people on the Autism Spectrum. The way they perceive the world is fascinating to me, and I want to know more about what struggles and obstacles they may be facing. I think that we should all take advantage of opportunities to learn about people who are different. We may never be able to understand everyone in every situation, but we can take small steps toward discovering the way the world looks to others. For me, that sometimes means trudging through rather scientific memoirs on topics I don’t understand. At the end of his story, Robison made me appreciate what he has gained from science’s assistance in his life; I can also understand his optimism toward future discoveries. These are developments I don’t need for myself, but that I can rally behind and support for other people.
I’m in no way insinuating that I’m good at this all of the time, either. In fact, I’m hardly good at it some of the time. I really like reading books where the protagonist is just like me. I want it to be easy to relate, and to feel like not only do I understand “her” (it’s usually a her), but also that we understand each other.
Still, reading is a wonderful opportunity to explore how others live. That’s what we praise it for–we want to go to other lives in other worlds. Stories like John Elder Robison’s offer people like me the perfect opportunity to do just that.