Activist Adam Harris says living with Asperger’s syndrome is like living on a planet “not built for him.” A planet built on rules and customs that are hard for him to decipher and that force him to work hard just to cope.
“Imagine in the morning you’re placed in a spaceship and blasted into outer space and suddenly you’re on a planet not built for you,” he says in a talk at TEDxDCU. “When you step off your spaceship keen to explore, you’re instantly overwhelmed by your surroundings. Every noise, every smell, every texture isn’t just something that’s unpleasant, it’s something that you actually cannot bear.”
“And then you meet your first alien — and at this point you’re quite anxious — [you] want to be able to communicate with this alien, but straight away you can’t tell by their posture if they’re angry or if they come in peace. You can’t tell by their facial expressions if they’re being friendly or if they’re being arrogant and you can’t understand by their language if they’re joking or if they want to be taken literally … You’re living in a world not built for you.”
This anxiety-inducing experience is a daily reality for Harris and many others on the autism spectrum, he says. And it can be hard for those without autism to understand what that’s like. But, Harris says, it’s important that all of us try.
In Ireland, where Harris lives, one in 100 people has autism. “If you consider all the friends you have and your colleagues at work, all the people you come into daily contact with … everybody will come across [someone with autism] at some point in their life,” he says. “And just as if you’re a businessperson and you go to France or you go to Spain on business and you need to learn the language, I have had to learn to speak your language … And now it is the obligation of the neurotypical community to learn autism language.”
How? There are many ways, Harris says. Read about autism. Remember how prevalent the condition is. Make efforts to push against stereotypes of those with autism. Work to understand the varied symptoms and manifestations of autism. “The only way we can truly be inclusive of people with autism is to be radical … and to actually treat everyone as if they have autism,” Harris says, “to realize that people with autism think differently, to realize that people with autism find sensory processing difficult, that people with autism find some social situations difficult.”
“I know as an autism advocate a huge amount of people with high-functioning autism who might not even discuss their condition.” Harris says. “And that often in school, or in the workplace, or even as they go about their lives in the community, usually they’re just seen as ‘weird’ as ‘strange’ as ‘difficult’ — not people who legitimately just need a little extra support. And it’s only through education and through increasing our own knowledge that we can support these people. That we can give people a break. That we can make an effort to communicate with a significant part of our population that every day has to change their behavior so much just to be able to cope.”
For more, watch Harris’s whole talk below: