When she was a little girl, Lydia Zahra wanted to socialise just like everyone else, but she often struggled to understand the unwritten rules of communicating due to her autism.
“I would want to talk and want to talk about myself, but I didn’t really know how to ask people questions,” the 19-year-old said.
“It seemed a bit rude.”
Lydia Zahra was diagnosed with autism as a young child.
Difficulty interpreting how other people are feeling is one of the defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorder.
There are no drugs or medical procedures to improve people’s communication and social skills (although early-intervention therapies have proven effective in children).
But now a team of scientists from Deakin University and the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre are investigating if a non-invasive treatment used to treat depression could also improve social understanding in young people with autism.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses magnetic fields that stimulate parts of the brain via a coil placed on the scalp.
Scientists are seeking about 20 participants aged 14 to 30 with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder to take part in the study, in the hope that earlier intervention can lead to more lasting change.
The new research is believed to be the first of its type involving children and it’s also targeting a part of the brain that hasn’t been targeted before, the right temporoparietal junction.
Principal investigator Professor Peter Enticott said this part of the brain did not activate in people with autism spectrum disorder the way that it should when they were in a social situation.
Although there have already been a small number of studies showing some promising signs of improved social skills through TMS, researchers stress that it is likely to take many years before they will have enough evidence prove whether or not it is a safe and effective.
“I know there are clinics rolling it out for autism in the United States, which in my opinion is way ahead of time,” said the study’s project leader, Dr Peter Donaldson.
One of the criticisms of TMS is that the effects can wear off over time, meaning people will have to come back for follow-up treatments.
Others have reported fraught results.
When American author John Elder Robison received TMS for his autism in 2008, he said it almost instantly unlocked his ability to perceive other people’s emotions.
But what he saw was not what he had hoped for.
“It spoiled friendships when I saw teasing in a different and nastier light. It even ruined memories when I realised that people I remembered as funny were really making fun of me,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times.
“And the hardest thing: It cost me a marriage.
“I’d lived with my wife’s chronic depression all those years because I did not share it. After the TMS, I felt the full force of her sadness, and the weight of it dragged me under.”
Meanwhile, some like Lydia Zahra, now a music student at university and a mentor to other people with autism, reject the need for such treatment altogether. The Altona teenager said she has been able to learn social skills over the years by copying her friends.
She said autism had also given her qualities she’d never want to lose, including her intense love of music.
“The way people with autism study something when they are really interested in it, is so intense and obsessive,” she said.
“Autism is one of the things that the world has to accept.”
But there are a number of promising testimonials. A 20-year-old woman involved in a 2014 study in Melbourne said that after receiving TMS she found it easier to make eye contact, was more aware of social faux pas, and felt more affectionate towards others.
The improvements were also noted by extended family members, who said that she had asked for the first time how they were.
Those interested in learning more about the Deakin trial can email firstname.lastname@example.org.