The elevator pitch for this book is “Awakenings for Autism,” but it’s obviously more than that. John Robison is pretty up front about – well, everything because of that aforementioned Autism, but more importantly – becoming the voice of high functioning Autism (previously Asperger’s) by virtue of having written a memoir and without any scientific background in neuroscience. Which isn’t entirely fair, because Look Me In the Eye is an exceptionally well crafted memoir that gives the reader a sense of how Robison thinks, not just what.
This book follows Robison’s involvement in a research study for transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain as it applies to autism; his autism advocacy and writing led researchers to him for potential test subjects, and Robison’s curiosity led him to volunteer himself.
The study involves micropulses of magnetic stimulation to very small areas of the brain which stimulate or inhibit certain responses, and Robison memorably describes one test done for fun where the language center of his brain was temporarily turned off – knowing the purpose of a doorknob but conceptualizing it only in images rather than words, an absence of internal monologue. (HOW COOL IS THAT? I wanna do it.) The actual study itself made me want to throw it all away and work in neuroscience – Robison spoke about it on NPR at one point, so it wasn’t all new to me, but he discussed an epiphany after the first round of TMS, where the emotion of a song that he had heard multiple times before dispassionately was suddenly real to him in a way it hadn’t been before. (I should clarify, the TMS was intended to learn more about how autism affects the brain and to help with social processing, but not to “cure it).
This was not the best book for me to be reading while I waited to hear if I got a job I applied for in medical research.
Robison writes movingly of his gains with TMS, but also acknowledges losses – he writes about how autism allowed him to be logical in stressful situations, how it shielded him from the worst of his wife’s depression, and how his autism blinded him to false friendships that were revealed once his social awareness improved.
I need to stop writing, because I want everyone to read this book. Go buy it.