The naysayers told John Elder Robison, “You must be nuts! I would never do that, that’s crazy.”
That was the reaction, among some, to his participation in experimental brain therapy called TMS or transcranial magnetic stimulation. But after decades of feeling like a social misfit — misreading or missing other people’s emotions due to Asperger’s syndrome, diagnosed at age 40 — he was suddenly able to sense others’ feelings.
Old familiar music was suddenly richer, colors became multi-hued and textured, and an acquaintance confided Mr. Robison once had been “difficult, abrasive and socially inept” but had become sociable, likable and sought out. “You’ve become one of the most insightful people I know, and I look forward to talking with you,” another said.
“I never had a moment of fear. Many people’s vision of this kind of therapy is like horror movies of people strapped in chairs and getting their head plugged into an electrical socket, and that’s not the case at all,” Mr. Robison, author of the just published “Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening” (Spiegel & Grau, $28), said in a recent phone call.
He will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., courtesy of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, Carnegie Library and Autism Connection of Pennsylvania. Tickets, $5, through pittsburghlectures.org or 412-622-8866 or at the door.
“TMS is delivered when you’re fully conscious. You’re sitting in a chair and you hear a pop and you feel like a tap on the top of your head, but there is not really a sensation at all inside your head because you don’t have nerves in there so you don’t feel pain or good from that, but what’s interesting is, as the TMS goes, it’s every second, it goes pop, pop, pop.”
It almost puts the mind in neutral, he said, and even proves peaceful. “It’s not at all a scary thing,” he said, although the newfound emotional intelligence also caused Mr. Robison to question some relationships and memories.
The 58-year-old, who became something of a rock star with his 2007 memoir “Look Me in the Eye” about his life with autism, had been approached by Dr. Lindsay Oberman, a postdoctoral researcher from Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital during an appearance at a Massachusetts college.
She told him about experimenting with TMS and hoping to develop a therapy that helps autistic people read emotion in others. “I listened to what she wanted to do, and the idea was obviously sensible to me,” thanks to his work as a rock ’n’ roll sound engineer (he designed the fire-breathing, rocket-launching guitars that became a KISS trademark) and other gigs.
He signed on — and later, so did his son — and received a dozen half-hour TMS sessions. He says the effects have “diminished, but it’s precipitated permanent change,” comparing the experience to being colorblind and then suddenly able to see something other than grays.
The world-recognized authority on life with autism, who lived in Pittsburgh for a year in 1963 when his father taught philosophy in the Cathedral of Learning, ultimately left school and a turbulent home at age 16. His younger brother, Augusten Burroughs (“Running With Scissors”), wrote the foreword to “Look Me in the Eye” and called John a “young, undisciplined, unsupervised genius loose in the world.”
He is now married, has a successful car business in Western Massachusetts, is an accomplished photographer and the neurodiversity scholar in residence at the College of William & Mary. In addition to serving on federal committees related to autism spectrum disorder, he co-founded a special education high school program that teaches automotive trades to at-risk teens.
As for TMS, it is available as an FDA-cleared therapy for depression but is not yet an FDA-approved therapy for autism or ADHD, but Mr. Robison suspects that will come in the next decade, possibly going on to treat anxiety, addiction, Parkinson’s and other intractable neurological conditions.
“What TMS is, is a powerful new tool that neurologists have to work to understand,” he said. “One of the things that’s going to drive a real revolution in medicine is when the brain imaging technology of people like Dr. [Marcel] Just is combined with stimulation technology like TMS. Because Dr. Just at CMU is able to — just really — read minds, and I talk about that in one of the chapters in the book.”
Pairing the two for targeted intervention “offers the promise that we’re going to be able to address so many things that have been said to be untreatable throughout medical history, and I think that’s an incredibly big deal.”
As he does in his book, he gives a shoutout to Pittsburgh. “The Autism Center of Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh and the brain imaging lab at CMU, those people are right at the very center of this, and it’s right in your city.”