It has always bothered me that many people, doctors included, tend to view anything that deviates from the typical as being abnormal or broken. The common medical perception of synesthesia illustrates this perfectly. Doctors don’t generally say, “This is an incredible gift; how can we give it to other people?” Instead, they say, ‘What went wrong in this poor fellow’s head, and how can we fix him? — from John Elder Robison’s book, Switched On: A memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening (2016).
Synesthesia is a rare neurological phenomenon where the stimulation of one sense produces sensations in another. Robison could “see” sound waves that corresponded with the sound he was hearing. That ability made him an exceptional sound engineer for the rock group Kiss. He tells the reader that when one’s competence is exceptional, people will overlook differences as eccentricities.
Coincidentally, I read the above quotation from Switched On a few days after writing “Don’t Fix Me” (Last week’s blog). Robison is on the autism spectrum and has been extraordinarily successful in multiple careers: sound engineer, inventor of toys, corporate executive, auto mechanic, shop owner, photographer, author, speaker. There are few people like him. Most of us will never achieve a fraction of what he has achieved. Despite his successes, he had significant social problems and has important things to say on behalf of individuals living with a neurological difference. His willingness to be different was a liberating quaility.
I’ve read John Robison’s books and heard him speak in Nashville six years ago about his eventful life as an Aspie (his name for persons with what we used to call Asperger’s Syndrome). His books are informative, entertaining, and well written. Look Me in the Eye is an autobiographical story and his first book. He followed with Be Different and Raising Cubby (Cubby is his son).
Switched On is a New York Times bestseller and was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post. It is a good read that informs the reader not only about TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) and its effects on autism, but about how our brains work. The perpetually curious Robison started researching the science and interviewing the researchers while a TMS research subject. This book is an interesting update to his personal story, and I recommend it.