Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Posts Tagged ‘autism’

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Spiegel & Grau 2016; ISBN 978-0812996890)

I recently read and blogged about Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison. It turns out that he also wrote two other books before this one came out this year: Be Different and Raising Cubby. (Must read those too.) I am fascinated by his descriptions of life with autism, much as I was by Temple Grandin‘s and Daniel Tammet‘s. It’s like reading about how life is lived in an alien culture; if you’ve read much of this blog, you know how cultural differences fascinate me. Autistic people’s way of experiencing the world is so different from most people’s, and their unique abilities are so remarkable.

This book briefly covers some of the autobiographical material in Look Me in the Eye, but what it is really about is Robison’s participation in a research project at Beth Israel Hospital near Boston in 2008. The study, by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone and psychologist Lindsay Oberman, explored the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on people with autism. (TMS involves “using an electromagnetic field to induce signals in the outer layer of the brain.”) The goal of the study was to assess whether TMS might be able to increase autistic people’s emotional intelligence–their ability to read emotional signals in others, which they are famously bad at.

The upshot of the research study is that in Robison’s case, the TMS did radically transform his ability to sense emotions in other people, which in turned engendered major changes in his behavior and human relationships–not all of which were positive. He writes openly about his post-treatment experiences, what he learned from the study, his fears and insecurities, his relationships with family and friends and researchers, and his feelings when his new-found abilities fade with time.

Robison also considers the question of whether using therapies like TMS to “cure” autism is in fact a good idea. He admits that the loneliness and bullying he endured as a child and his difficulties with human relationships as an adult were painful, but considers that the special abilities that enable him to understand machines better than other people provide a kind of counter-balance to this pain. He writes, “Sometimes, a touch of disability makes us great.” (p.274) Many of humankind’s quantum leaps forward have been made possible by the minds of people who, when we look back, seem to have been on the autism spectrum: Einstein, Beethoven, da Vinci, Mozart, and others. What if their eccentricities had been “fixed” when they were children? Would they have gone on to greatness anyway?

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in brain science and/or autism.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Family Pictures

Posted by nliakos on December 6, 2012

by Sue Miller (Harper & Row, 1990)

Somebody gave me this book, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for years. Not having another book lined up after On Saudi Arabia, I picked it up last week.  It’s a novel about a family: dad David, a psychiatrist; mom Lainey; kids (in order) Lydia/Liddie, Macklin/Mack, Randall, Nina, Mary, and Sarah. The novel is set mostly in the fifties and sixties in Chicago as the children are growing up, with two chapters in the seventies at the end. Nina, the “family historian” and a photographer, narrates the first and last chapters as well as one chapter at the beginning of Part Two, and the remaining chapters are written in the third person, but each one focuses on just one person’s point of view. This was a little confusing at first; at first, I kept waiting to return to Nina’s first person point of view until I finally realized it wasn’t going to happen (not soon, anyway). I don’t really understand why Miller used the first person for Nina in these three chapters (she also has several third-person chapters), but I suppose they kind of link the other chapters together: a beginning, a middle, an end which, alone among the chapters, are not dated (and consist of Nina’s memories of things that happened within the scope of those thirty-plus years). Actually, I found the dates confusing, although they were generally in chronological order, and since Miller only rarely mentions the ages of the characters I was never quite sure how old they were. Maybe it just didn’t matter. I don’t believe she ever tells us their last name, either.

This family’s great tragedy is that their third child, Randall, is profoundly autistic, languageless and evidently severely mentally retarded. Randall’s condition affects everyone in the family. According to the “wisdom” of the day (shall we say, with hindsight, the stupidity of the day?), David blames Lainey, accusing her of not loving the baby enough. Lainey responds with a fierce love and protectiveness for Randall, as well as three more pregnancies to prove to her husband that she is, in fact, a good mother. The five neurotypical children, particularly the three youngest, grow up with the burden of needing to be perfect, to somehow compensate for their brother’s deficits. Naturally, this doesn’t work out, and Mack and Nina, in particular, have turbulent adolescences and young adulthoods, causing themselves and their parents endless grief.

The novel examines the changing relationship between David and Lainey, who are very different from each other and who react very differently to their handicapped son.  Their marriage goes through several different stages which I won’t describe here.

The one person whose point of view is never explored is Randall. At one point, Lainey tells David that Randall is who he is, and there is not another Randall, a neurotypical Randall, trapped inside him, wanting but unable to get out. Now, some autistic people are using technology such as iPads to express themselves, like Elizabeth Bonker, believed to be languageless but in fact a gifted writers and poet. So there could have been a thinking person trapped inside that body, with thoughts and feelings that he couldn’t express. The author could have devoted a chapter or two to him. Perhaps there was no way to know, in 1990, that people apparently without language were not necessarily without thought. Or perhaps there are people who truly have no inner life that we can imagine, at least not in words. As I was reading, I did wonder what Randall’s “take” on his parents and siblings was, if he indeed had a “take.” He is described as being mostly oblivious to human interaction, responding only to inanimate objects, sometimes with fascination and sometimes with an eye to destruction. But those who have read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime will wonder what was going through Randall’s strange, different mind as his parents and siblings lived their lives around him. As the minister says at Randall’s funeral, “Randall had lived always in a state of childhood, a state of grace, as it were. . . . He’d escaped time, lived untouched by the struggles that dominated our lives–the struggles of choice, of will, of love and hate. He was free. . .of human experience, which the rest of us must suffer, endure, and try to learn from.”  Maybe, and maybe not. I wonder.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Smiling at Shadows: A Mother’s Journey Raising an Autistic Child

Posted by nliakos on June 8, 2008

by Junee Waites & Helen Swinbourne (Ulysses Press 2003)

This is a very moving account of the life of a severely autistic child and his loving parents, who like many parents of children with disabilities, discovered strengths in themselves they probably never knew they had.  Australians Junee and Rod Waites tried to understand their son Dane’s world as much as possible, finding that his autism brought unusual gifts along with its well-known deficits.  Their struggle to educate Dane and make him as independent as possible is inspiring.  Dane functions amazingly well in a world that must have been as strange to him as another planet.

Posted in Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir (Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant)

Posted by nliakos on March 19, 2008

by Daniel Tammet (2006; Landmark Audiobooks 2007, narrated by Simon Vance)

This book is one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently.  Daniel Tammet is a young British man with autism and savant syndrome; he is extraordinarily gifted in the areas of mathematics and languages.  Unlike many (or most?) people with savant syndrome, he is verbally articulate and is able to describe, for example, how he “sees” numbers as mental landscapes having shape, color, and size; how he goes about learning (or creating) a new language (he learned enough Icelandic in a week to go on national television and be interviewed in the language!); and his experiences as a volunteer English teacher in Lithuania–his first time living away from home!  What a gutsy guy.  He’s a real inspiration.

Here is one of several videos on YouTube about Daniel Tammet:

Posted in Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

Posted by nliakos on March 19, 2008

by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (narrated by Shelly Frasier)

I first read this marvelous book in 2006 and just listened to the audiobook.  It is so  fascinating.  Temple Grandin, author of Emergence: Labeled Autistic; Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism; and The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism here considers the way animals perceive the world and the way people with autism perceive the world, and finds them to be surprisingly similar.  She postulates that autistic people may occupy a middle ground between human perception and animal perception.

There are numerous fascinating examples about cattle and dogs as well as other animals.  Grandin matter-of-factly shows how autistic people, including herself, react in many ways in the same way animals do to stimuli in the environment.  For example, whereas people screen out irrelevant details from what they see, perceiving only the whole, animals (and autistic people) are unable to screen out anything and do not perceive “wholes”; in other words, we see the forest, and they see the trees.  More accurately, we see the tree, and they see each leaf and bit of bark.

Dog owners in particular will gain much knowledge about their pets from this book.  Grandin knows a lot about dogs and shares her knowledge here.  Reading it will improve the ability of dog owners to understand and communicate with their dogs.

Posted in Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »