People had always been a mystery to John Elder Robison. Machines, however, were not. With a gift for electrical engineering and gizmos, he built tractors as a young boy before moving on to bigger and varied projects.
In some circles John is known for his photography; in others he was known for the automobile company he founded; and of course there was the brilliant electronic music creations of his youth, including special effects for Pink Floyd's sound company and building custom guitars used exclusively for the band KISS.
But all his life, John struggled with human relationships and social interaction, and it wasn’t until his late thirties that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. “As much as I appreciate my autistic gifts, I’ve always had a hard time connecting to people,” John Elder Robison wrote on news.com.au earlier this year.
In his bestselling 2007 memoir, Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Aspergers, John described his lonely childhood and adult life with Asperger’s syndrome. After the success of his book, John was approached by researchers from Harvard Medical School with a potentially life-changing offer: would he take part in an experimental new brain therapy known as TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation?
TMS uses an electromagnetic field to induce signals in the outer layer of the brain, which researchers believe can help autistic people develop the ability to read other people's unspoken emotional cues. The ground-breaking treatment also represents a new frontier for how we view, and treat a range of psychological conditions including depression and bipolar disorder.
John's new book, Switched On, is the incredible story of the impact of TMS – both transformative and destructive – on his life. What happens when the world as you know it is turned upside down? And what does TMS mean for the future of neuroscience? “That has profound implications for how we understand autism, and the structure of the brain,” he wrote. “We have just scratched the surface with the technology.”
Hear John Elder Robison discuss his experiences with new brain therapies on Saturday 10 September at 11.30am. He will also take part in a panel discussion, ‘Build a Better Brain’ on Sunday 11 September at 1pm.