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Season 13 | Episode 9


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Ron, Owen and Cornelia Suskind (Photo Credit: Ron Suskind)

Two stories of humans DIY-ing answers to seemingly unsolvable problems. First, a homemade brain-stimulator that may unlock hidden potential. In the last couple years, tDCS has been all over the news. Researchers claim that juicing the brain with just 2 milliamps (think 9-volt battery) can help with everything from learning languages, to quitting smoking, to overcoming depression. Sally Adee, an editor at New Scientist, was at a conference for DARPA - The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - when she heard about a way to speed up learning with something called trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). A couple years later, Sally found herself wielding an M4 assault rifle, picking off enemy combatants with a battery wired to her temple. Of course, it was a simulation, but Sally's sniper skills made producer Soren Wheeler wonder what we should think of the world of brain stimulation. 

Then, the story of a family that finds an unlikely way to access their silent son's world. Ron and Cornelia Suskind had two healthy young sons, promising careers, and a brand new home when their youngest son Owen started to disappear. 3 months later a specialist sat Ron and Cornelia down and said the word that changed everything for them: Autism. We set off to figure out what their story can tell us about Autism, a disorder with a wide spectrum of symptoms and severity. Along the way, we speak to specialists, therapists, and advocates including Simon Baron-Cohen, Barry and Raun Kaufmann, Dave Royko, Geraldine Dawson, Temple Grandin, and Gil Tippy.

Comments [21]

linda from new york

my name is Linda, i have a 10 year old son wih AUTISM , i could not stand to see my son, his skin was rough, and his eyes were very bad, he does not communicate with anyone always talking to him self, i was told that government has provide free treatment for children with AUTISM, and i took him to the hospital, they gave him treatment and there was no changes at all, i was on internet searching for autism cure, then i saw testimonies of how DR ODIA used his herbs to cure AUTISM permanently without side effect on the child, i then contacted him on: odiaherbalcenter@ yahoo. com. He ask me some questions about my son condition and i told him. i was asked to get his autism root herbs and seed oil which i did, he instructed me on how to use it on him, in 3 weeks he was totally cured. as am writing this testimony now, there is nothing he cannot do, he plays, nothing on his skin anymore. i give all thanks to DR ODIA for helping me cure my autism son, if you have a child that is suffering from AUTISM he will surely cure him, you can contact him via email odiaherbalcenter@ yahoo. com and give your own testimony.

Jan. 09 2018 06:13 PM
Jonathan Miller from Maple Valley, WA

I am glad that a brief mention was included regarding the Son-Rise program. My wife and I are implementing this program with our autistic son Owen, and he has made good progress. While a full recovery of the type Raun Kaufman experienced would be wonderful, we realize this may not happen, and we intend to do our best to ensure he is able to live a full and happy life.

Jan. 25 2017 12:30 PM
Erin from NYC

This piece gives listeners the impression that many children recover from autism. The research shows only a tiny fractions lose the diagnosis, in spite of intensive interventions such as those trumpeted by Raun Kaufman or even more mainstream modalities. The vast majority retain the diagnosis, suffer persistent mental and functional deficits, and will never live independently. As cheery as Owen's story is, it's a small colorful blip in a big scary reality. How will we care for the ever-growing population of autistic and disabled adults? Who will pay for more "LIFEs" (the supported community where Owen will live) for the new millions with autism? Like all other autism parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind will die. Not every person with autism has a brother like Walter—and it's not so clear even wonderful Walter relishes the future caregiver role. That's the real story here.

Jan. 21 2017 08:10 PM
Charles Lang from Highlands Ranch, Colorado

I'm disappointed that your story had no mention of the film "Life Animated" that has been produced and according to one source might be nominated for and Oscar in this year's Academy Awards. The movie is available on DVD.

Jan. 21 2017 06:11 PM
George Hughes

The beginning of this episode so reminded me of the TV film A Circle of Children', 1977. That film opened my eyes to something I was seeing at a friend's school. This was a nice story.

Jan. 20 2017 09:50 PM
Cathleen Myers

I often Listen to NPR while driving with my son, who is on the Autism spectrum. Today, when I picked him at school, we were listening to this program. A sad coincidence that it was right at the point when a man was saying these words. "Autism ruins lives." Great. My son looked at me with tears in his eyes "Am I a villain? he asks. It will take a while to repair this. Thanks Radio lab.

Jan. 18 2017 04:30 PM
Kaoru Iwakura from Portugal

It's never been a secret that neurotransmission acts on electrical impulses. PKD already new that in the 50's. But the results of a good discovery led to bad solutions (ie. the electro-shock therapy) I think people shouldn't stop thinking about solutions obviously, but knowledge spreads so fast, that the actions (and consequences) go beyond anyone's control. But then again, I think the hallmark of the human race and its history is to fight against control, but that control is constantly replaced.

Best wishes.

May. 24 2016 03:29 PM
Jeff Hittenberger from California

Our son's experience was similar to Owen's and Disney movie dialogue and music likewise provided means of expression for him. The decoding process we engaged in with him is part of what has been described by Dr. Stanley Greenspan as 'communication circles.' Far from being a single anecdote or pseudoscience, the strategies used by Owen and his family have been helpful to thousands of others. Thank you, RadioLab and Suskind family, for telling the story so effectively.

Dec. 06 2015 07:40 PM
David Freel

I have avoided Radiolab's 'Science' output for a while now. Mostly because of the creeping creationism.

However the cynical and ridiculous pseudoscience and manipulation of this episode really galled me.

I know that the backside has fallen out of the DVD market but suggesting that all stupid parents and therapists should continue to buy Disney to own as a way of helping to socialise a child who may or may not be on the autistic spectrum is repellent and offensive. No attempt was made to look at the multitudinous studies which show that TV is not conducive to accelerated language development.

This is terribly lazy story driven Sciency propaganda and represents another nail in the coffin of a once respected show.

Really guys a single incidence anecdote ? This is the hallmark of PR and anti scientific. And the drama hack parents and the fact that you named the coronation at every opportunity.

Let me repeat, I am disgusted and you should all be ashamed. And this is cruel to the 'Marks', ie every anxious and scietifically illiterate stay at home parent in America.

Why not sack Robert and get a real scientist on board. Or if you can't do that start researching properly, remove product placement.......

Oh why do I bother, you know what you are doing.....

Nov. 18 2015 02:22 PM

The comments about the couples move coinciding with the emergence of their son's autism triggered a visceral reaction in me. I remember very clearly that my son who was born in 2001 had been developing pretty normally until I took a full time job when he was 18 months and he regressed in many ways physically and mentally after going into daycare. He was diagnosed then with failure to thrive. After 6 years of a stable school and caregiver environment (we had a great nanny) he had mostly gotten back to normal development stage with kids his age. Then we moved out of state for a job and even though the new school system was great he never recovered. I am proposing that change is toxic for kids who are born with a disposition for autism. And it is difficult to realize the damage you are doing to these kids in the context of managing your young professional life. I think this accounts for a large proportion of the increase in autism diagnoses in recent years

Nov. 17 2015 11:02 PM
Julia from Upstate

The guest who spoke about Kelli Stapleton's suicide attempt glossed over the fact that she also attempted to kill her 14-year-old autistic daughter, Issy Stapleton. In fact, Kelli Stapleton is currently serving a 10-to-22-year prison sentence for the attempted homicide of her daughter.

I find the omission of virtually any mention of Issy Stapleton not only glaring, but also distressing; likewise the guest's apparent sympathy for suicide attempts on the part of parents of autistic children, without any mention of the shockingly high rates of homicide of autistic children by their own parents.

Nov. 17 2015 08:27 PM

Owen, I really liked your singing of under the sea, please record some more songs and put them on youtube or something. I love your rhythm.

Nov. 17 2015 07:48 PM

I agree with the psychologist who wrote a story about his son Ben for This American Life. Too much hope can be an absolute shot in the foot. That Ron guy sounds like an insufferable self-made guru.

Nov. 16 2015 12:42 PM
Jackie from NYC

I just got an ad on my feed for what seems to be a personal brain stimulator..

Anybody have insight into that?

P.S. I love the Juicervose story!

Nov. 16 2015 09:45 AM
Jackie from NYC

I just got an ad on my feed for what seems to be a personal brain stimulator..

Anybody have insight into that?

P.S. I love the Juicervose story!

Nov. 16 2015 09:45 AM
lorimckay from Ann Arbor Michigan

As a Direct Care worker who works with Autistic children I appreciate the insight I gained listening to this pod cast. While some of the info I've heard before, your program helped me to comprehend things that might be going on with the children I serve thank You!

Nov. 16 2015 12:17 AM
Pat from Claremont

I wonder how this would help people who have ADD/ADHD.

Nov. 15 2015 11:43 PM
Mary Munn

and perhaps some kids see too much tv/media for their developing minds?

Nov. 14 2015 08:38 PM
jennifer dawson from Portland

@Sandra Stollman. Yes! It is referred to as neuroplastcity (in relation to tDCS, "meta cognition" in relation to meditaton - as I understand it). I have been a meditator for years and the effects began to wear off it seemed but I began tDCS (July 2014 after I, too, heard "9V Nirvana"). There is a GREAT article in the New Yorker (April 2 2015) "Electrified" that I think you will enjoy.

Nov. 14 2015 07:10 PM
Mary Wickline from San Diego, CA

It occurs to me that tDCS could be explored as a treatment to slow down the over-stimulation of the autistic brain.

Nov. 14 2015 04:00 PM
Sandra Stollman from South Florida

The story on tDCS is fascinating! I am struck by the report of post-brain-stimulation experience as one of "who I am when the gnomes are gone," when the self-talk "noise" has gone silent and focus (as on driving) is unusually uncluttered and keen. I wonder if anyone is studying brain activity during that period in comparison to what can be tracked in the brain of an experienced meditator. When I meditate (which I have a long history with, but do not practice formally often), I am, of course, at first very much aware of those "gnomic voices" - insecurity, self-doubt and worry being the main topic of chatter-- but having sat for half an hour or an hour practicing "mindfully" (my practice is Vipassana, aka "mindfulness" meditation), I enjoy a post-meditation state that sounds quite similar, though not as sharply and dramatically focused. During the following hours, the normally distracting mental "noise" retreats, and the ability to proceed through complex tasks smoothly is clearly enhanced. I wonder if, in this case, similarity of effect might indicate a similarity of cause.

Nov. 14 2015 12:55 PM

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