It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday and Rebecca “Becky” Audette is already in bed, tucked under a polka-dotted lavender comforter. Dark purple velour curtains with butterfly ties hang over the lavender walls of her bedroom.
Purple has been Becky’s favorite color since she was a toddler, before she was diagnosed with autism at age 7. Now, the young woman functions at about the level of a 4-year-old.
“Am I going to bed? I want to go to bed,” she insists.
Becky lives with her mother, Pamela Peirce; brother, Jason Audette; and Jason’s wife in a gray-and-white colonial-style house that was Peirce’s childhood home in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. When Peirce was a child, her extended family owned five houses along this quarter-mile stretch of road, dirt back then. Peirce and her grown children are the last of the clan to occupy the street. It’s paved now, but the house still sports features of an earlier time: two-pronged electrical outlets, a VCR, inherited furniture.
It also offers a hopeful vision of the future. Becky bears the markings of an invasive, high-tech treatment under her purple plaid pajamas: two linear scars, each about 3 inches long, over her clavicle, and two circular bulges protruding ever so slightly from her chest. Beneath these marks lies the power source for an implant that stimulates key parts of her brain.
When Peirce opted for this treatment, called deep brain stimulation (DBS), for her daughter almost a decade ago, it had, to her doctors’ knowledge, never been attempted in a person with autism. But Peirce had run out of options. In her late teens, Becky had become preoccupied with the repetition of certain sights and sounds, to the exclusion of all else. She watched the same video clip over and over until the tape in the VCR next to her bed broke, and said little, other than to bark occasional obscenities.
“I think there will continue to be cases where [DBS] is clinically warranted and, from a purely scientific research perspective, in principle, very valuable,” says Ralph Adolphs, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “But they are going to be case studies and are going to face all the difficulties of case studies—the variability of autism, the lack of precision and control of DBS.”
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