Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change by John Elder Robinson.
Robinson undergoes experimental research–allowing his brain to be zapped with electricity–to see if electric stimulation (transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS) can help improve symptoms of his autism. This is a fascinating journey of self-discovery and personal transformation by the author of Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s.
Robinson volunteers to participate in an experimental study at the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center run by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone. TMS is currently used to treat depression and alleviate migraines but it has yet to be approved for autism patients.
Robinson volunteered to participate in the study because he wanted to “fix” himself, as he puts it, but it leads to a growing interest in autism research. This growing interest, as seen in the end of the book, even leads Robinson towards a new career.
Science fiction writers explore electric stimulation in fiction. For example, Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark has a fictional protagonist undergo a similar procedure. Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, that Robinson frequently refers to, examines the life changing consequences of brain stimulation on a fictional character.
Robinson, however, is the first to write a true account of TMS experiments from the perspective of a person who is on the autism spectrum. As shown by his narrative, TMS seems to have the potential to improve a patient’s emotional intelligence. One of the hallmarks of autism is the inability to correctly identify emotions in others or, often, in themselves.
Robinson writes a true account of the pros and cons of the experiment. Some of the TMS sessions have no effect and some give him moving flashbacks and even hallucinations that elicit intense emotions.
Clearly, the pros and cons of this kind of research must be carefully weighed. On one hand, Robinson can finally perceive emotions. On the other hand, relationships with his friends and wife deteriorate.
Robinson is a unique case because though he suffers from emotional blindness he is also a highly intelligent self-taught sound engineer, photographer, mechanic and writer. His disabilities are offset by his unique gifts which have allowed him to succeed in many different occupations.
Though the book may serve to give many parents and relatives hope for new forms of autism treatment, some of the experiences Robinson describes may be unique to his own case. Even so, TMS has enormous potential and warrants further research.