Harry Potter and the Chamber of Autism
A speech written for a late elementary school or middle school audience (4th to 8th grade).
Good morning. My name is James Williams.
I’m here to talk about Harry Potter.
How many of you know who Harry Potter is?
He’s a British boy who, at the age of eleven, learns that he is a wizard by Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of the Keys and Grounds and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
I’m also here to talk about autism, because I have autism.
What is autism? It is not a sickness like chicken pox, measles, or a lifelong illness like diabetes. It is a mental disorder. It is a different way of processing information, which makes it difficult for me to understand you. And sometimes, it’s hard for you to understand me.
Autism is invisible to the human eye. I do not look autistic. But I behave like an autistic person. Autism is unique in this way. Mental retardation is a mental disorder as well, yet mentally retarded people usually look mentally retarded.
You might think that because someone with autism sees the world differently, and experiences things differently, that in order to really understand what an autistic person is dealing with, you have to have autism. In fact, even though I do see the world differently, and do experience the world differently, you don’t have to have autism in order to understand what autistic kids deal with.
In fact, Harry Potter has experienced many things that autistic individuals have to endure daily. Most of you know who Harry Potter is. For this reason, I’m going to show you autism by relating it to something Harry Potter has had to deal with.
In Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter becomes the fourth champion in a tournament called the Triwizard Tournament. Part of the tournament involves hosting the Yule Ball, a dance which is held on Christmas Day in the book, or Christmas Eve in the movie.
As stated in the fourth book:
“Potter, the champions and their partners—“
“What partners?” Harry asked Professor McGonagall.
“Your partners for the Yule Ball, Potter,” she said. “Dance partners.”
“Dance partners?” He felt himself going red. “I don’t dance,” he said quickly.
“Oh, yes, you do,” said Professor McGonagall. “Traditionally, the champions and their partners open the ball.”
“I’m not dancing,” Harry said.
“It’s traditional,” Professor McGonagall replied. “You are a Hogwarts champion, and you will do what is expected of you as a representative of the school. So make sure you get yourself a partner, Potter.”
So, Harry has to go to the Yule Ball and find a girl to be his dance partner.
And Harry is terrified of asking a girl to dance with him. As J.K. Rowling later writes:
Now that he had taken on a dragon, and was facing the prospect of asking a girl to the ball, he thought he’d rather have another go with the dragon.
Harry latter comments:
“Why do they have to move in packs? How are you supposed to get one on their own to ask them?”
Harry does have mixed feelings about this. First, he does not want to do it, so when he does get asked by many students if he wants to go to the ball with them, he instinctively turns them down, because he personally does not want to go to the ball.
But since he has to do it, he decides to ask the girl that he has a crush on. Cho Chang. She is a year older than him, an excellent Quidditch player, and extremely pretty. He finds her with her two friends and is initially paralyzed.
Writes J.K. Rowling:
He’d just have to ask Cho for a private word, that was all…he hurried off through the packed corridors looking for her, and he found her, emerging from her classes.
“Er—Cho? Could I have a word with you?” he asks.
All the girls around Harry started to giggle. She didn’t, though, but said, “Okay,” and led him away from her classmates.
Harry turned to look at her and his stomach gave a weird lurch as though he had missed a step going downstairs.
“Er,” he said.
He couldn’t ask her. He couldn’t. But he had to. Cho stood there looking puzzled.
“Sorry?” said Cho?”
“Do you – do you want to go to the ball with me?” said Harry. Why did he have to go red now? Why?
“Oh, Harry, I’m really sorry,” Cho replied, and she acted as if she meant it. “I’m going with someone else.”
Now, many books have been written and movies made about boys who do not know how to approach girls even though they are secretly in love with them, and have crushes on them. But many of those boys do not have trouble approaching their other male friends, or female friends, like when Harry approaches Hermione.
It’s never mentioned in Harry Potter that Hermione Granger might be Harry’s girlfriend. The fact that readers have already asked J.K. Rowling whether or not Harry Potter is going to get a girlfriend without considering that person might be Hermione already means that the issue goes unquestioned.
Now, have you ever been in that situation? Having to approach someone, feeling extremely embarrassed about it, not knowing what to say, and terrified that when you did say something, that person would reject you?
Now, a question for everyone—how many of you have friends?
I’m sure you all do. Now, even though you might feel a bit uneasy going up to a girl or a boy, do you feel uneasy going up to one of your friends and chatting with them?
Most of you don’t. So that means that your uneasiness that you would feel is not toward everyone. You don’t feel uneasy toward everyone. But what if you did? What if you didn’t have any friends, so that when you tried to approach anyone, you felt uneasy, and that person laughed at you because they saw your uneasiness?
You won’t feel happy. But would you want to go and try to make friends with other kids if you felt uneasy when you approached a child? You wouldn’t. Why inflict that terror on yourself?
For us with autism, it’s not just approaching a girl that makes us feel uneasy. For some autistic kids, approaching any kid our age makes us feel uneasy.
Kids with autism don’t know the right thing to say in front of other people. They’re scared they’re going to get rejected. When they do say something, they are often rejected or teased by other people. And that’s why many autistic kids don’t want friends. Many autistic kids want to be left alone. To Harry Potter, Cho Chang is Cho Chang. To an autistic child, every child is a Cho Chang—someone who might reject him outright, say no for a legitimate reason, as Cho had, or accept him, which would be very unlikely.
It is this uneasiness that makes it so terrifying for an autistic child. Because many autistic children have already been rejected, they don’t want to feel that heartbreak again. And, since many kids use stories like “I’m going with someone else” as polite lies, they don’t believe them when they say that.
Other autistic kids do not want to be left alone, and are looking for friends. Harry, after all, did have a crush on Cho Chang, despite his uneasiness with approaching her. Thus, these kids want to try making friends. But many kids who aren’t autistic aren’t very nice to them. They’ll even do naughty things and get in trouble with the school staff because their friends dared them to do it, and sometimes even get thrown in jail.
Many kids your age were not very nice to me when I was in the fourth and fifth grade. I was thought of as weird. They’d say my shirt was on backwards when it wasn’t. They’d call me weird names like Baloney Face and Oscar Mayer Weiner Hot Dogs.
Since I’m speaking to kids your age, some of you might be guilty of teasing. I ask you, why? What is so attractive about making fun of someone who is different? Why would you enjoy calling someone names like that?
So if you know a child has autism, don’t try to approach them or make friends with them. They think everyone is a Chang, as I’ve said before. Now, that doesn’t mean you are a Chang, but they’ll thing of you as one.
What does that mean actually? A Chang? You’re not a Cho Chang—you are your own name. Why am I referring to you all as Cho Changs?
I am using the term metaphorically for a person whom you want to be with, or have to be with, but are still terrified of approaching, and then, when you finally gather the courage to approach that person, you are rejected, regardless of the reason.
Many autistic people think this way. As an autistic person, I am constantly taking two things and linking them together. How many of you, before you saw me today, when you read about Harry approaching Cho Chang in the fourth Harry Potter book, or saw it in the Harry Potter movie, thought that that scene related to autism?
Not many of you did.
Now you do.
Autistic people’s minds are constantly wandering around, thinking things. My mind would constantly remind me of things I thought were unrelated to each other. As a young child, for example, my mind always thought of the scene in the movie the Lion King when Simba climbed to the top of Pride Rock after defeating Scar whenever I was in trouble or had to do something that scared me. An autistic person might read the fourth Harry Potter book and see how uneasy Harry felt when he had to go up to Cho Chang, and will relate it to their own troubles with other kids.
When I read that book when it came out five years ago, that was what I was thinking about.
So to an autistic person—you might just be a Cho Chang.
But let’s get back to the uncertainty. If you felt this uneasiness in front of other kids, would you prefer to be with other kids? I wouldn’t think so.
However, for some reason, the child who is content being alone is not accepted. Teachers and parents just don’t accept it. In fact, learning social skills is a part of what you have to learn in school. How many of you have had to be in school projects where you’ve been put in a group of three or four kids you had to work with, or partnered with another child to do an assignment?
Most of you all have. And sometimes the teacher assigns you the person without even giving you a choice.
How many teachers here have created assignments that involve partnering students with other students for a project, or an assignment? All of you have.
And that’s what makes this an issue.
Now, how many of you know who Hermione Granger is? Hermione Granger is one of Harry’s friends, who is a girl, but not a girlfriend. As I said before, very few readers have thought of Hermione as his girlfriend.
One of the other traits of Hermione that we remember about her is the fact that she is a workaholic. She’s always studying constantly, spends more time studying than Harry or Ron, and even came to Hogwarts knowing sometimes more than half of a class curriculum before the teacher even taught her. She is the brightest wizard in her class to most teachers, except Professor Snape, who thinks of her as an insufferable know-it-all and punishes her for it.
How many of you are like that? The brain of your class? Or maybe, the math brain, or the reading brain, or the history brain?
Why do you aspire to that? If you are the brain, why?
I would suggest because you enjoy that subject.
Well, many kids with autism are the same way. Hermione spends her time studying magic and her studies, and goes overboard. Why does she do this? Because she apparently enjoys doing it. Well, many autistic individuals obsess over things, and are extremely fixated over many specific topics.
And they may act like insufferable know-it-alls at times. But if many autistic individuals are know-it-alls, then why was Hermione not given an autistic diagnosis?
That’s because Hermione is expected to know what she knows, and since she knows more than she should, she is praised. But autistic individuals like me are obsessed over things we’re not supposed to obsess over, even if those obsessions are signs of great intelligence.
What if Hermione was not obsessed with her magic? What if she obsessed over something else…like, say, the multiple relations between calendar dates?
What if she talked about how the sum of the digits of January 9th and April 6th equaled the same number? Or how about how the sum of the digits of January 2nd, February 4th, March 6th, April 8th, May 10th, June 12th, July 14th, August 16th, September 18th, October 20th, November 22nd, and December 24th all equal multiples of 3?
I’m sure none of you understand what I’m saying.
What if Hermione went on and on about these subjects, instead of about what Mandrakes are, and the behavior of Boggarts?
She would be a know-it-all, and she might just get an autism diagnosis.
This is important because this shows that people with autism aren’t always that different than individuals without autism. We know that Hermione has gone on and on about a specific topic, often being rewarded by her teachers. As Hermione said in Herbology class in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:
“Mandrake, or Mandragora, is a powerful restorative. It is used to return people who have been transfigured or cursed to their original state.”
“It is also, however, dangerous,” said Professor Sprout. “Who can tell me why?”
“The cry of the Mandrake is fatal to anyone who hears it.”
That’s okay. But if Hermione talked about calendar dates, no one would understand her.
At the same time, autistic individuals are obsessed over calendar dates because they want to be, just as Hermione likes her work. The motivation is the same, it’s just the subject matter that makes it problematic.
And then, many of us become know-it-alls and bother people because people with autism don’t know when they’re bothering people about their obsession. Hermione is often praised by teachers but often bothers Harry and Ron.
But let’s look at the Mandrakes now. What is the trait of the Mandrakes that makes working with them so dangerous?
Their fatal cry.
But as Professor Sprout says, “As our Mandrakes are only seedlings, their cries won’t kill yet. However, they will knock you out for several hours.”
So what does everyone have to wear before working with the Mandrakes in Herbology class?
the movie, we hear how loud those plants are. We’re not killed by the sound, but
do you remember how annoying the sounds are?
Now, what if, everywhere you went, you heard those Mandrake sounds everywhere? And there was no respite from them, everywhere you went, until you went to sleep at night?
And what if, when you heard those sounds, you were bothered by them, and you fell apart when you heard them?
You see, many kids with autism have sensitive hearing. To them, they might always be hearing those Mandrakes. And just as the baby Mandrakes cause people to fall apart, they fall apart. They might even throw up and be sick if they are anticipating a loud noise, such as a school fire drill. They might burst into tears and have to go home. Or they might freeze and be stiff as a board.
Yet was I allowed to wear headphones to protect my ears from the fire drill? Are autistic individuals allowed to wear headphones to protect themselves from the Mandrakes of the world? Absolutely not. When they try to cover their ears, they get in trouble.
And so, the Mandrakes keep causing them to fall apart, and everyone wonders why.
Finally, I’d like to talk about Harry Potter and his life before he knew was a wizard. Does anyone know who raised Harry Potter?
His aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley.
Now, what else do we know about them?
That they’re not very nice people. In fact, they’re terrible people.
What else do we know about Harry Potter before he knew he was a wizard?
We know that when Harry was angry, he unconsciously used magic in his head that he couldn’t explain, and the Dursleys did not understand him.
One of these times in particular was when, at the London Zoo, he found himself able to talk to a boa constrictor, who, in turn, was compelled to escape his cage, and did, causing havoc in the reptile house.
Harry does not know that he was given the gift to speak with snakes at the time. Neither does he know that he is a wizard, and that wizards who are angry tend to use magic even if they do not want to.
The Dursleys, in turn, use this to justify punishing him even further, even though he does not know why the snake went free, or that his magic caused it to happen.
Then Hagrid, the gamekeeper at Hogwarts School, in the first book, tells Harry that he is a wizard. First Harry is in disbelief. How could he be a wizard? But then, what does Harry feel when he realizes that he is a wizard?
In the first Harry Potter movie, Hagrid even asks him the following:
“Did you ever make anything happen? Anything you couldn’t explain, when you were mad or angry?”
Harry Potter feels relief. Happiness. Finally, he knows that he’s not weird, and that these strange things were the result of being a wizard.
This is what it is like for someone with autism. Autistic people often have been in the situation of doing something bad, and getting in trouble for it. I used to think about it as an incident, where I’d do something wrong, get yelled at, and then explain why I did it. Often times my mother would be proud of me and then I’d tell her something bad I did and she’d soon be furious. My life consisted of many of these incidents.
But sometimes I couldn’t explain why I had done what I had done. Why did I delete the operating system on my father’s computer? Why did I spill the milk? Why did I shatter the glass? Why did I spill the spaghetti? Why did I lose my backpack? Why didn’t I know better?
Kids with autism often make things happen that they can’t explain. And if they don’t know they have autism, they don’t know why, no matter how hard they try, they are always getting in trouble.
How would you feel if, no matter how hard you tried, you always did things that got your parents angry, even if you didn’t intend to do that?
You might not even want to be punished, because you didn’t even do wrong on purpose.
But then, how would you feel if you learned that it wasn’t your fault that you did those bad things. Instead, if was due to something beyond your control. People with autism were born with autism, and it was beyond their control. Likewise, Harry was born a wizard, and it was beyond his control.
But wouldn’t you feel relieved if you learned it wasn’t your fault, and that you weren’t alone?
I think you would.
But even though you don’t have autism, and are not wizards, there are more and more people learning they have autism every single day. It is likely that you will meet someone with autism at some point in time in your life. You might already have a brother or sister with autism, or know someone who has autism at this school. When you are with an autistic child, don’t make fun of him. Respect him. Treat him the way you want to be treated.
Thank you, I will now answer your questions.