Switched On

I would like to talk a little about a book I have just finished reading, Switched On: My Journey From Asperger’s To Emotional Awakening by John Elder Robison, published by Oneworld about a month ago. John Elder Robison is a prominent autistic person, author of many books including Look Me In The Eye, his memoir of growing up not quite fitting in, making guitars for Kiss and then becoming a toy maker and then a specialised car mechanic. Like with Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie, I stop what I am doing when John Elder Robison has a new book out. I read Raising Cubby, his memoir of his son Jack’s upbringing and brush with the law to do with Jack’s love of explosives, the night it came out though this one took a couple of weeks for me to get the time.

At first I was sceptical. Robison writes in this book about his experiences with a scientific procedure called TMS, a form of brain stimulation that energises parts of the brain and may be useful in future treatment of autism and mental health difficulties. He writes movingly of the first TMS session where he experienced a deep connection with music and then about how the enhanced emotional experiences he had brought him closer to people though was partly responsible for the break up of his marriage. Just like every autistic person is different, every person who has experienced TMS is different and Robison expresses that well.

What I like about Robison’s books is his style of writing. It is relatively unvarnished, direct and often saying things that I am amazed to read in print as they tally so much with my own experiences. Switched On manages to do that excellently again, keeping the very personal, conversational style even while delving into complex areas of neuroscience and his personal experiences, good and bad.

My overriding thought while reading this book was how I wouldn’t want to try TMS myself, just as I wouldn’t want to be ‘cured’ or otherwise relieved of my autism. I can do no better than quote John Elder Robison himself here: ‘I always wanted friends and acceptance, but I never wanted my differences erased in favour of becoming some kind of smooth-talking robot’ (Switched On, p. 269). My small, incremental advances in being in the world with people have come from being in the world with people, rather than by medical or pharmaceutical means. That doesn’t work for everyone and neither should it. It doesn’t even always work for me, if I’m honest. I don’t advocate any approach because there are millions of autistic people in the world and each one of us is very different. A solution that works for John Elder Robison might not work for me just as a solution that works for me might not work for someone else.

My view on most things is relatively uncomplicated. Whatever works. If what you need to get through the day is a Mars bar, then wire in. As long as there is no harm to others, or too many laws broken, then you’re fine. Whatever works. I have always sought to observe other people and sometimes I see things they do and think on how I could do that or not, as the case may be. I have found, though, that putting people on a pedestal doesn’t help. I am just as valid a person and, remarkably, folk learn from me too. I am by no means the finished model and I am learning new things every day. Those things I aspire to do well in take time. But whatever works. Sometimes plans go awry and that’s okay. Sometimes the best solutions are the ones not everyone would pursue.

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