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A medical procedure used to diagnose damage from brain injuries may also help some autistic patients make connections and understand emotions they’ve never experienced. Author John Robison underwent that experimental therapy, detailed in a new memoir, “Switched On.” Hari Sreenivasan talks with Robison about his experience.
In the latest NewsHour Bookshelf conversation, a look into a potential new treatment for autism.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, can be used to diagnose damage from brain injuries and disorders. But a new study investigates whether the therapy can help some autistic patients make connections and understand emotions they have never experienced.
I recently spoke with one such patient.
John Robison, thanks so much for joining us.
So, first, let's start with, what is transcranial magnetic stimulation, and why did you decide to participate in this research?
JOHN ELDER ROBISON, Author, "Switched On": It's a therapy where they use focused bursts of electromagnetic energy to transmit tiny amounts of electricity through the scalp and through the skull, and into your brain.
Your brain's an electrical organ, so if you want to change how it functions, you can change it most directly with targeted electricity. When I heard that there was a study that might help autistic people like me see emotional cues in other people, the idea of it just spoke to the heart of something that I felt had been a disability in me all my life, being unable to read body language and expressions and cues in other people.
So, you describe this. I want to quote a paragraph.
"Imagine that, all your life, you have seen the world in black and white. Meanwhile, everyone around you describes the beauty and richness of color. After a while, their talk of color frustrates you. Which do you believe, their words or the evidence before your eyes?"
So did you get a glimpse of color?
JOHN ELDER ROBISON:
That's really the transformative thing about this. You can be an intelligent adult, and all your life, you hear about color, and yet eventually you start getting angry because the evidence in your eyes is gray.
And then imagine the doctor does something and they turn on color for half-an-hour. And even if color goes away, for the rest of your life, you're going to know it's real. And that's kind of how it is for me. They stimulated me, and it was a temporary thing.
The effects lasted for some months, I would say. Some of them faded away quickly, some longer. And that built an ability that's in me today based on that real experience. And it's something words and teaching and talk could never have achieved.
The premise of the stimulation wasn't that you don't have the wiring, so to speak, to pick up on emotional cues. It's just that your wiring was almost dormant.
Well, you know, the magical thing is, the premise of the experiment exploited the hope that I did have the wiring.
And when they fired the energy into my head, it wasn't like this gradually came on. It was like I went to bed and I woke up and the next morning, bang, it was there. And I could, like, look in your eyes, and it was like seeing into your soul. And never in my life did I have experience like that before. So, it was from nothing to everything.
You know, one of the things that you point out is that you were overwhelmed just by waves of emotion.
Just you and me talking like this, I would look at you, and I would sense a curiosity or worry or fear or something, and I would almost be brought to tears by an ordinary conversation.
And that happened to me the first day. I would say, excuse me. I got to just step away and calm down.
And it was crazy. I thought not seeing emotion was disabling, but seeing it in such tremendous intensity was, frankly, really disabling and, of course, thankfully, it moderated.
But what did you see? Did you have an expectation that there was a world of joy and happiness that you weren't plugging into?
I did. And I was just a — I was just a crazy fool for that, because anyone who looks at the news knows that the world is not beauty and joy and light.
Well, I thought those are the messages I'm missing, and if I could get them, I would be happy. And instead, the messages were angst, and jealousy and fear and worry and…
This is what people around you were exhibiting?
It was a pretty big shock to me.
And the thing that was maybe the hardest was seeing people looking at me, sometimes with contempt or derision. And even my memories, for me to remember a time when I was laughing with somebody, and after the enlightenment of the TMS, I realized they were laughing at me. And that made me really, really sad.
This also cost you the relationship at home with your wife.
It cost me my marriage. It cost me clients at work, who I felt were — didn't like me. And, of course, it's a business, right? And should I even care if somebody likes me? But I did.
And it cost me friends. And, like I said, it cost me even my memories.
Now, you go out of your way in the book to mention that this is the experiences that you had, that even other people that participated in the research had very different experiences. You're not advocating automatically that this is a cure for autism or anything like that.
Oh, absolutely not.
This is — this is not a cure for autism. But what it is, is, it's a story of a powerful transformative experience that ultimately had a very positive effect on me, but it was a rough ride. It shows, though, the tremendous power of this TMS technology that's basically unknown. Even as it's FDA-approved to treat depression, nobody knows it.
You know, this also makes me think, looking forward, is there an era that you see where people say, well, I want to do something to my brain to perhaps enhance and wake up certain parts of my brain that might not be as active or efficient as they could be?
I think that that's a very real thing that we need to start the conversation about now.
And that's actually one reason I wrote "Switched On," because I'm concerned that people are going to read my story, which, frankly, is like a stepping up of my emotional intelligence, and they're going to read some of the other accounts in newspapers, and they're going to think, I'm going to do this to get my mathematical I.Q. hopped up.
And if it's you or me, if we're intelligent adults, we can go into it with our eyes open. But what if people start saying, I'm going to do this to my child to speed him up in school? I think we have some real serious ethical crises coming with this kind of technology and how it's going to be used.
All right, the book is called "Switched On."
John Elder Robison, thanks so much for joining us.
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