Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Switched On, and Autistic Feeling

Switched On has gone on sale today, and people are already reading and talking about it. The book tells the story of my participation in experiments where Harvard neuroscientists used high-powered magnetic energy to “switch on” the ability to see emotions in other people. One effect of the experiments was a “stepping up” of emotional response in me.
Want to hear me talk about it in my own words? Listen to me describe it on NPR “Here and Now.”  Skip forward to minute 8 if you want to hear my thoughts on this.
One of the things that is happening now is that some non-autistic people are commenting on the book in ways that are hurtful to me, and probably other autistics. I don’t think they mean to be hurtful, but they are. If I may, I’d like to illustrate what I mean.
One reviewer wrote: “Imagine you are a robot. A smart robot. Now imagine scientists flip a switch, and you suddenly have feelings.” That is the premise of a Star Trek episode, folks, but it’s not the premise of Switched On.
In my book I talk about how someone said I looked like a talking robot in a video long ago, and how hurt I was by that comment. Then, after TMS, I felt I could understand why they said that, because my face was very fixed and rigid. But here’s the thing: understanding did not make it any less hurtful to hear. If you were called a freak all through your childhood, how do you think that would feel to hear as an adult?
In Switched On, I explain in several different ways that we autistics have deep and strong feelings. What’s different about us is that we may not express them in the expected ways, and we may not have typical responses to things that might trigger an emotional response in you.
That is not robot behavior. That is autistic behavior. Read my book for the scientific studies that explored that, why it can be beneficial, and what it means. 
I’m not going to give away the whole book in one blog post but I would like to say this: Switched On is a story of expanding my ability to engage other people by turning on my ability to read their unspoken social cues. It’s not a story of me going from “having no feelings” to “having feelings.” That was Mister Spock on TV.
Make of my book what you will, but keep in mind that I – and every other autistic person you are likely to meet – has the same ability as you to feel things. In fact, as you will read, our emotions often run deeper and longer than those of non autistics. So please be mindful of what you say. Words do hurt.
Turning on the ability to read other people is a remarkable achievement that strikes at a central feature of disability for many autistics. For many of us, the most painful thing we live with is social isolation. For too many of us, the pain is overwhelming, and we turn to suicide. Did you know the rate of suicide for bright autistic teens is over nine times that for the general population? So it’s no laughing matter.
The autism spectrum is very broad. Some autistics are pretty good readers of other people. Others (like me) are very poor indeed. That was what sparked my interest in the study. I saw a chance to maybe get past something that had caused me lots of pain and loneliness for 50 years. If you’d lived with that ache all your life, and saw a chance to escape it, would you take it?
Not every autistic person would want a therapy like this, should it become widely available. Not everyone wants TMS or other depression treatment. That is their right (to choose.) For others, it can be life changing or life saving.
Best wishes, and enjoy the story.
John Elder Robison