Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Suffering From Gifts

John Elder Robinson suffers from Asperger’s syndrome (AS). Suffers is the key word here, as it connotes misery. It is more than an existential question - it is a question those who love anyone, whether suffering from AS or not, must confront.

I have written before about Robinson. Robinson has a new book, recently reviewed by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times. He is brother to Augusten Burroughs, bestselling author of "Running With Scissors" and "Dry." Robinson is a bestselling author in his own right, having written, "Look me in the Eye."

Robinson is a savant of the "Rain Man" type, having unique gifts:
From an early age, it was clear that [Robinson] had been wired with extra fibers for appreciating music. He could easily hear the difference between one kind of Fender bass and another. He could recognize which of 100 speakers in a sound system was groaning in distress. He could take any musical gizmo and, as Nigel Tufnel might say, make it go to 11. 
"Switched On, A Story of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening" is Robinson's book, with a "Flowers for Algernon" type story. The book is about Robinson's journey through a 2008 Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center study using stimulation to certain parts of the brain attempting to activate neuro-pathways. The desired goal? To increase emotional "intelligence" in those who by definition have deficits in engaging in the subtleties of emotion.

The change was dramatic, and in a twist to Algernon, some it long lasting:
The transformations he undergoes throughout the book are astonishing — as foreign and overwhelming as if he woke up one morning with the visual range of a bee or the auditory prowess of a bat.
                                                  *    *    *    *    *    *
Most of the effects fade over time, as the doctors had warned Mr. Robison they would. (The doctors, truth be told, had zero expectation of any lasting effects.) But to this day, Mr. Robison moves more comfortably among strangers. He relates better to the customers at his car repair shop.
The price paid for this deeper emotional intelligence? Steep.
'I had created a fantasy that seeing into people would be sweetness and love,' he writes. 'Now I knew the truth: most of the emotions floating around in space are not positive. When you look into a crowd with real emotional insight you’ll see lust, greed, rage, anxiety, and what for a lack of a better word I call ‘tension’ — with only the occasional flash of love or happiness.'
Neuro-diversity is a still a new idea. Perhaps because I have a non-verbal child on the autism spectrum, perhaps because Robinson is around my age (58), I appreciate his insight more. The things we love, we lose. The tighter we hold, the more expensive the emotional price. Is it worth paying?
But [Robinson] is also torn. He did not come of age when 'neurodiversity' was part of our vocabulary of difference. He did not come of age when 'Asperger’s' was part of our vocabulary at all. He received his autism diagnosis at 40, and he has many memories of being bullied, losing jobs and mishandling social situations because of his inability to read others. 
The reflection from Robinson's book is more than his image shone back. It is instead the image of anyone struggling to love another who suffers. Norman Maclean writes elegantly about it in "A River Runs Through It":
For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.
Craig Elder Robinson is a gift, no matter from what he suffers.

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