“Not all differences lead to disability. Some lead to exceptionality.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, February 4 to discuss Switched On by John Elder Robison. We began by sharing some fun, quirky moments from the book that strayed from the central narrative but were memorable nonetheless. We were all delighted to remember the passage in which we learned that Gene Simmons dated Diana Ross (who knew?). Not the kind of facts we expected to glean from this book, but as we quickly discovered, Robison is a Renaissance man, and rock and roll is just one area well within his wheelhouse. 

This memoir follows Robison’s journey as an adult participating in an experimental new brain therapy, TMS, to “understand and then address the issues at the heart of autism.” John had lived his entire life with one of the characteristic signs of autism: difficulty understanding other people’s emotions. Suddenly, emotions were inescapable — in other people and in himself. 

We were a mixed bag in how we enjoyed the book. Some liked the book, others hated it, and still others found some parts interesting and other parts hard to get through. One critique was that the book was filled with anecdotal stories and didn’t generate any new thinking about autism. Of course we had to remember that the book is a memoir and orient our expectations accordingly. The writing style is technical at times, almost hyper-focused, which is reminiscent of Robison’s gifts that allow him to be fully immersed in certain experiences: seeing sound waves, or into the inner workings of machines, for instance. 

If you were John Robison, newly diagnosed with autism, with the opportunity to participate in the study involving TMS therapy and a potential “awakening of emotions,” would you? This was one of the core questions we discussed as a group, which also led to discussion about involving minors, and what sort of support we believed should have been in place for Robison and others as they navigated potentially personality-altering experiences. The undertaking affected Robison’s relationships with family, friends, customers, and even people featured in his memories, and we all agreed that counseling and more robust social support would have been beneficial to Robison. Weighing the pros and cons would be tough to do, especially in an experimental setting, when the pros and cons aren’t even definitive. The book, in this way, created more questions than answers — food for thought. 

We also landed on the word “fix” that Robison used throughout the book. Do autistic people need “fixing”? Is it cruel, or even dangerous, to drive society toward a mythical “neurotypical”? Times are also changing…autism is understood so much more today, but questions still remain, and as understanding grows, the questions do, too. Questions about early interventions, misdiagnoses, and more. We don’t have all the answers, and neither does Robison, but we have our individual stories to share. There’s a saying that goes, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Reading and sharing stories is how we can know more and support more people while honoring individual differences. 

Other suggested titles: 

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang 

Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

Explore more: 

NPR Interview Featuring Robison and Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone (from the TMS study)

Robison featured on PBS NewsHour

UVA Researchers Using Grant to Develop New Test for Autism 

Perspective Piece on Pandemic Mask-Wearing and Autism

National Library of Medicine Reading Club: Disability Health (lots of great links and resources here about ASD, development, and disabilities)

JMRL was able to acquire new copies of Switched On in paperback format thanks to funding from the NNLM Reading Club. Books on Tap will meet again on March 4 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell@jmrl.org).  We’ll be reading Red at the Bone, written by JMRL’s 2021 Same Page author Jacqueline Woodson (jmrl.org/samepage).

March 4 : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson

April 1 (no foolin’) :  Elevation by Stephen King

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