How Do Autism’s Symptoms Relate
To Abilities Of Non-Autistic People?
Good afternoon. My name is James Williams.
I have a condition known as autism.
Do I look autistic?
I don’t look autistic. I look like an average person. That’s because you cannot take a look at someone and say they are autistic. You can, however, look at someone in a wheelchair and say they are physically disabled.
This is what separates autism from other disabilities.
In my presentation, I’m going to be using the word “neurotypical.” For those of you who don’t know what that means, it is a term in the autism community that means “not autistic.” That means that most of you would be neurotypical.
Also, there are many different types of autistic people. Some are lower functioning than others. A lower functioning person is a lot different than someone that is higher functioning. I am considered a high-functioning autistic person. For this reason, most of what I say is relevant to higher-functioning people with autism, though lower-functioning people do have many of these symptoms as well.
I’d like to start now by asking you this.
When you get up in the morning, what do you do?
You get dressed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, and get ready for school. You do it so many times you don’t even think about it.
That routine, however, only works if you can brush your teeth, eat breakfast, and get ready for school. Let’s say one morning you woke up, and you tried to get dressed, but you couldn’t.
What if you woke up one morning, and you tried to brush your teeth…and you couldn’t?
What if you woke up one morning, and you were served breakfast, and you didn’t like the food you were served?
Suddenly, you would be a mess. You’d ask for help from your parents, and would likely be embarrassed that you had to ask them for help.
Autistic individuals are often in this situation. Autistic people are expected to know how to do things daily, but they can’t. Routines are imposed on them requiring them to do things they cannot do. When they ask for help, they are sometimes denied help because people say they aren’t trying hard enough, or that they’re old enough to know better.
Now, I’m going to ask you another question. What is something you can do well?
I’d like to ask you another question. What is something you can’t do well?
Now there isn’t really anything wrong with that, is there?
Autistic people are the same way. There are some things that they can do well and other things that they cannot do very well at all. However, it becomes a problem because many of the things that we can’t do we are expected to do, day after day.
However, those without autism aren’t expected to do what they can’t do.
Let’s get back to that thing that you can do well. Before people knew you could do it, are people expecting you to do it every day?
Now that you can do it well, are people expecting you to do it every day?
This is a very important point. You see, if you had never had that talent, no one would have started to expect you to do it well. That expectation was not imposed by anyone except yourself. On the other hand, everyone eventually expects us to be able to get dressed by ourselves, even if we can’t do it.
Now, what about the thing that you can’t do very well. Are people expecting you to do that every day?
If you’re not expected to do something daily, or weekly, etc. then it doesn’t matter whether or not you can do it or not. If you have been expected to do something and you can’t do it, you know very well what happens—people get angry.
Now, how many of you can tie your shoes?
Almost all of you can. In fact, all of you are expected to know how to tie your shoes by now.
However, many autistic individuals cannot tie their shoes. And sometimes, those autistic individuals are savants, who can tell you what day of the week a calendar date fell on but still cannot tie their shoes.
While I am able to tie my shoes, I must always double-tie if I wear shoes with laces. This is how I have adapted to this requirement. Other times I wear Velcro shoes—another adaptation. This is because my shoelaces constantly untie if I simply single-tie them. When I was in the fifth grade, however, shoe tying was extremely difficult, and it often took me fifteen minutes to tie my shoes. When I got into the school building, the first thing I had to do was change into my gym shoes. However, it took me so long to do that that one day I was late for class and got in trouble with my teacher. Then, on the way to the gym, my shoelaces would untie every five minutes.
At the same time, I am able to give a presentation to an audience.
Now I’d like to ask another question. How many of you have friends?
All right, how many of you don’t have friends?
Of those friends that you have, how did you make them?
Did you want to make them?
Now, did you have any friends that you were forced to make?
If you were forced, why?
Did you ever end up liking the people you were forced to make friends with?
When you are with your friends, what do you do with them?
When you are with your friends, do you have any trouble knowing what to say?
You don’t. And that would make sense. When you are having a conversation with one of your friends, you instinctively know how to respond. Otherwise you would not be able to continue that conversation. It just comes out of you. Even when you are angry with your friend, you still know what to say to him or her.
Now, how would you react if a kid came up to you who acted strangely? What would you do?
Next question. How many of you have seen the movie “Agent Cody Banks?”
For those of you who know the story, you will know that it is about Cody Banks, and the mission he is given by the CIA. His mission is to befriend a girl named Natalie Connors to find information about her father, who is unaware that he is working for a terrorist organization.
Before he actually introduces himself to Natalie, the CIA briefs him on what she likes. According to the CIA, she likes Arabian horses, turquoise jewelry, pistachio ice cream, and T.S. Eliot. His first assignment is to get invited to Natalie’s birthday party.
Now, do you remember the scene in that movie when Cody talks to Natalie for the first time?
During this scene, he says things that everyone knows are quite stupid.
From the beginning, he doesn’t know what to say. He walks up to Natalie, and very visibly shows his uncertainty. He says to Natalie, “Are those books?”
“Uh, yeah,” Natalie replies, not knowing why he would say something like that.
“I love books. I could read all day. I just love them,” Cody says.
Natalie doesn’t understand why he still is talking to her but she replies, “Great, then you’re in the right place.”
Cody sees that he’s not doing well so he decides to mention one of the interests the CIA told him she had. “I especially love T.S. Eliot,” he replies.
“You do?” asks Natalie in disbelief. To her, how could such a moron like T.S. Eliot?
“I think she’s amazing. You know, the way she captures the female perspective, you know, it’s great, it’s so female-like,” Cody replies.
Natalie now is just as much in equal uncertainty as Cody is. Why is someone so stupid still talking to her? “T.S. Eliot is a man,” Natalie points out, because she knows for certain that’s right.
Cody tries to lighten the situation up by saying, “Well, if you want to get all technical, of course, but you know, you never know these days.”
This is it for Natalie. This guy is just way too weird. So she asks him, “Do you happen to be in Special Ed?”
Cody realizes that this attempt failed so he tries to bring up something else the CIA told him she liked. Horses. “I like horses. I think their hair thing is pretty cool,” Cody says.
Natalie has had it. “What a freak,” she exclaims, and walks away.
What Natalie doesn’t know is that the CIA has put Cody in every one of her classes, in order to increase the time that they can meet. At the beginning of her next class, Natalie talks to her friends. When he walks up to her, trying to talk to her a second time, Natalie’s friend says, “Uh oh. Here comes Horse Guy. Good luck,” and walks away.
Wouldn’t you think he was in Special Ed the way Natalie did?
How would you react if Cody came up and talked to you like that?
That’s what autism is like. We don’t know what to say in front of people our age all the time. We feel just as uncertain as Cody did. And that uncertainty is very visible to other people, and makes us seem strange. And other people think of us as strange.
Just as Cody had no idea what Natalie was going to say, having never been able to successfully talk to a girl before, autistic people don’t know whether what they say next will tease them or be acceptable. And let’s face it—many autistic people are in Special Ed.
At the same time, autistic people sometimes do well with other autistic people. Autistic people may find their best friends in the autism community.
Also, unlike neurotypical people, not all autistic people want friends in the first place, or think friendship is desirable. You have had so many enjoyable friendships that to you, friends are desirable. But autistic people don’t always want to be with other people, and this isn’t always respected. Many school social workers have tried to force autistic kids to have friends, and go to an even farther extreme of making them have friendships with specific kids.
Now, do you think that a child has a right to not have friends if they do not them?
I think they should be given that right unless they need to have them. Many autistic adults, for example, find themselves relying on friends as a support system. But autistic children are not adults yet, and you shouldn’t try to force them to have friends because they might need them when they become adults.
All right, I’m going to make a face. You tell me how I feel.
Now, all of you detected I was angry. But if you were autistic, you might not have detected that.
Now, I’M GOING TO TALK ABOUT AUTISM!!!
What did you think I was feeling then?
You might have thought that I was just angry, or I just had a naturally loud voice.
Autistic people learn language and understand language differently than neurotypical people. Many autistic individuals do not understand how the tone of their voice changes how people understand what they said. Many autistic people talk too loud, in part because they cannot hear they are too loud, like I just did, and don’t know they’re talking too loud. Some autistic people talk with an angry tone but they might not even be angry. Yet people think of them as actually angry and don’t want to be with them.
What if that angry tone was just the way you said things, and you didn’t know that’s what people thought of you? You wouldn’t understand why everyone was trying to leave you. You’d feel lonely and upset.
Some autistic people also have a hard time understanding nonverbal language. They rely on what people tell them in order to know if they are, for example, bothering someone. If the neurotypical person tries to show anger on their face to try to get the child to stop, and the person can’t understand his expression, he’s still going to bother the neurotypical person.
Just as autistic people can’t understand the impact of their tone of voice, they may not understand what other people are trying to communicate by way of their tone of voice. Many neurotypical people, when they are with other people, use nonverbal communication in order to be polite to them but to still convey a message. It is impolite to tell someone that you are boring them. Thus, to tell them that you have to tell them nonverbally—by having a “bored” tone of voice or by looking away. But many autistic people rely on people to say, “You’re boring me,” in order to stop. When that never comes, they just keep talking. They don’t understand that the person is using their tone of voice to communicate a message.
Eventually, of course, the neurotypical person gets so angry that they blow up in rage at the autistic person, and the autistic person doesn’t understand what’s going wrong. The neurotypical person has done more harm than good by being polite as a result. This is why if you know someone is autistic, you should not be polite to them.
Autistic people also have a hard time understanding idioms. Does anyone know what an idiom means?
An idiom is a saying used to mean something else. If I told you the coast was clear, you’d understand what that meant, right? “The coast is clear” is an idiom.
But many autistic people take things literally. At one time I did, even though I don’t anymore. But other autistic people would wonder why you were saying that if you weren’t at the beach.
There was one time when I sent an E-mail to a person, telling a joke. She replied, “James, you crack me up!” I was suddenly terrified. After all, I had only sent her a joke, yet for some reason she was about to die. I wrote to her, apologizing that I had caused her to almost die. I had taken her idiom literally.
Okay, here’s another question: How many of you are bothered by the lights of this room?
Many autistic people have hypersensitive sight. They are bothered by bright lights like the ones in this room. However, since no one else is bothered by them, they are forced to deal with these lights they hurt their eyes as if they were looking at the sun.
Next question? How many of you are bothered…
[The fire alarm goes off. A teacher tells the students not to evacuate the building—it’s a part of the presentation.]
by the ventilation system in this room?
How many of you understand what I’m saying right now?
[The fire alarm stops.]
The following was not a fire drill, nor did you hear an actual alarm. You heard a recorded sound on my computer.
What you just heard was the sound of a fire alarm—the sound you hear when you have a fire drill. Many autistic individuals have sensitive hearing. They are the opposite of deafness—they hear too well, so sounds like these are very painful to them. Many autistic people are terrified of fire drills—and even have nightmares about them at night. Some shiver in their shoes every morning if they are in a school that doesn’t notify them if a fire drill is coming.
However, not all autistic people are sensitive to all loud sounds. There are two types of loud noises—sharp and sustained loud noises. A sharp loud noise is like a fire alarm—it lasts a second and there is silence and then it happens again. Sustained loud noise is like hard rock music—it is loud, but it is continuous. Some autistic people are sensitive to one but not the other. Others are sensitive to all loud noises.
Then other autistic individuals are terrified if the loud noise is sudden—such as a surprise fire drill, but if they know the sound is coming, then they are not terrified anymore, because their body can prepare.
In my case, I knew the fire alarm was coming, because I was in control of it.
Now, I’m going to repeat what I said when the alarm was going off. How many of you understand what I said when the alarm went off?
Some autistic individuals cannot stand the sound of the ventilation system inside a classroom. To them, listening to the teacher is like listening to the teacher if the fire alarm was constantly going off. Just as it was more difficult for you to pay attention to me when the alarm went off, it is more difficult for the autistic person to pay attention to the teacher.
Other autistic people hear so well they can hear what’s going on in neighboring classrooms, and even cars on streets outside the window!
Now, I have another question to ask. How many of you cannot stand the smell of your neighbor?
Some autistic individuals smell too well. For this reason, they might be bothered by smells that are acceptable to you. Other autistic individuals have another problem—they have foul body odor themselves because they don’t understand the importance of hygiene, and other people are bothered by their smell.
However, whatever symptoms autistic individuals have, they are still people. Like all people, they want to be treated with kindness and respect. You may not be able to identify someone with autism at first sight, but you will be able to notice these symptoms.
If you see someone with one of these symptoms, they might not be stupid—they might just have autism. Do not be afraid to ask them—many autistic people would be willing to tell you. I would if you asked me.
Now, I will answer any other questions you have about autism until it is time to leave. Thank you for listening.