To Treat or Embrace
Two very different articles were in newspapers lately. One article in the New York Times told the story of a fifty-year old man who participated in an experiment called transcranial magnetic stimulation or T.M.S. The purpose of the non-invasive treatment is to change activity in a particular part of a person with autism’s brain so that he/she can sense emotions. The common wisdom is that people who are on the autism spectrum do not experience much emotion themselves and have difficulty feeling empathy with the emotions of others. The article is about a man who received the T.M.S. treatment and commented the very “next morning when I went to work, everything was different. Emotions came at me from all directions, so fast that I didn’t have a moment to process them.” He further reports that seeing emotions didn’t improve his life, in fact in some ways made it worse. He now “realized” that people he remembered as funny were actually making fun of him. He believed that customers at his job were looking at him with contempt. He goes on to say eventually he lost his marriage. It seems that his wife was chronically depressed but before the treatment he just accepted her “quiet sadness”, after the treatment they did not need each other any more. According to the article it took over five years for him to become accommodated to his newfound ability. The article ends with this quote, “becoming ‘typical’ proved to be the thing that was truly crippling for me. Now I realize that my differences make me who I am- success and failure alike.”
I have multiple questions about both the article and the experiment. I have a very hard time believing that everything switched overnight with one experiment. It is also confusing to me why so many of the newfound emotions were now negative. Funny people were making fun of him. Customers viewed him with contempt. He is married again and his second wife has worked to unite his former family with his present one. It seems he is still having someone else manage his emotions.
Another article in Southern Maryland News describes a young man with autism and Tourette syndrome. He is an English major at the College of Southern Maryland in Prince George’s County. He has made the dean’s list three times. The autism creates difficulty for him to connect with others. Tourette syndrome causes verbal and motor tics. James Walls graduated from The Harbour School at Annapolis. When asked about his disability he just responds, “It’s part of who I am, I’ve kind of learned to accept it, embrace it, like I have my autism.” James is doing just fine being who he is.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is estimating that 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism. When James was a student at Harbour, he had friends and socialized well. Just like the rest of us, James’ friends were a lot like James. That old saw about “birds of a feather” is really quite true as each of us examines our own friends.
So for autism, or any disability/charactieristic for that matter, fight it or embrace it. Maybe it all comes down to loving who we are and hope that some others will as well.