How's this quote from John Elder Robison, Aspergian and author of the best selling, LOOK ME IN THE EYE, to whet your interest: "Science is making real solid progress to remediating some symptoms of autism." Let me repeat that: "REMEDIATING SOME SYMPTOMS OF AUTISM."
My version of the quote goes something like this: "Holy $#it! John, my tall Aspergian friend, is making perfect eye contact with me, he can read my emotions in my face and he is animated! How the heck did that happen?"
Let me back up for a second here. Last night I spoke at the monthly meeting of ASCONN, the Autism Society of Connecticut, greater Hartford region. Thanks to Beth Katten and Melissa DuMont for coordinating the meeting (and the taboo Wheat Thins.)
I was scheduled to present with CAMMIE McGOVERN who, like me, has a chapter in Embracing Autism. Cammie had a family emergency and couldn't attend. So I called my friend John Elder Robison. "John, what are you doing tonight? Want to come to Hartford?" I asked with my fingers crossed. "Sure! I'll tell the group about that new study at Harvard."
John is the master of understatement. That new study is testing Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation on several people with Aspergers and the results have shocked everyone involved. People who were unable to make eye contact, read facial expressions and empathize are suddenly able to do all three. Without losing any of their keen intelligence or in John's case, their wit.
I saw John last night for the first time since last winter. I can see real, physical changes in him. It's crazy! His voice modulates up and down. His facial muscles move more than they did, showing emotion. When we first met last spring, he told me he had trained himself to glance into someone's eyes every 30 seconds or so, just for a moment, to establish an appropriate social rapport. He had trained himself to do that. It wasn't natural for him. Last night, he looked straight into my eyes while we spoke without flinching. (Now that makes a girl feel good! LOL!)
There were at least two people in the audience who had met John and me last December at an event at Elms College, and they too were taken by the visible changes in John. One gal said, "You don't look at the floor when you speak anymore."
Yup, John Elder Robison has had some of the symptoms of his Aspergers reversed in a trial that is currently underway in the Harvard University Neurosciences lab. Here's the story:
The study is being conducted by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone who is a Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Center for Non Invasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. (TMS Lab) The tests are scientifically trackable and verifiable as eliciting real changes in the brain. Functional MRI proves it. The treatment is non-invasive and painless. My insufficient summary of the theory behind the study is that everything our kids/people with autism need to function is in their brain intact. But that our kids are running the "wrong software program" and thus are impaired. TMS allows the brain to run the proper software. In other words, our kids are NOT brain damaged and their wiring is just fine, they just aren't using the tracks they need to. And the proper tracks can be turned on!
After hearing of John's experiences, the scientists were stunned to hear other study participants describe new insights into their own emotional intelligence. One participant told of reading the emotional meaning in sentences for the first time, and another talks of "seeing what I'd been missing." Can you imagine the impact of that? It takes my breath away. It appears that the test subjects who have seen results are very pleased with their newfound abilities. In other words, losing some of their autistic traits has not diminished them.
Even better, the doctors never expected the results of this treatment to last more than a few hours at most! And yet, they are lasting far longer for John and the other participants. Currently, more than a month.
You can learn much more than I can explain at John's blog HERE. He expects this story to hit the mainstream media perhaps as early as this Fall. The testing is being done on verbal adults at this time. But the researchers will likely add more significantly impaired people as the tests progress. Perhaps including children at some point, if ethics allow.
I can't tell you how beautiful it was to watch John talk to me with full on eye contact. Not because I didn't enjoy my friend exactly as he was when his eye contact was fleeting. Not for a minute. But because he is obviously so pleased himself. I asked him, "So, what color are my eyes?" (He'd said that prior to the test he could not tell you people's eye color.) "Blue!" he said with certainty.
I'd like to thank John for allowing me to share his story here at Age of Autism. I've made a few changes to the original piece with John's input. Mark Blaxill is our science guy and now I know why. But I'll keep you posted on developments.
Here are some photos that illustrate the changes in John. The one below is the first time he and I met last Spring.
What do you think? See a difference? (Um do you think it's just me? I made him look so serious?) ;)
Kim Stagliano is Managing Editor of Age of Autism.