Want to help people who have autism? Try empathy.

Adam Harris at TEDxDCU (Photo: Simon Lazewski )

Adam Harris at TEDxDCU (Photo: Simon Lazewski )

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:


  1. Ron Eubanks

    As a life-long Aspie for 64 years now, I am delighted to listen to this young man speak to so much of just what it is like to live as an alien life form. Not all Aspies have sensory issues, but I do. We are forever misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and labeled by neuro-typicals (NTs) by their set of what constitutes acceptable behavior, specifically in our verbal response. Frankly, I don’t know why so many NTs want to live in world where everyone acts and talks like they came out of the same cookie cutter. I totally relate to everything he cited as being problematic for Aspies. Congratulations to Adam Harris.

  2. Patti Mojonnier

    Thank you so much! I have just started working with children on the spectrum in elementary school. This is such a great explanation of how life feels for them. I really love our kids and it is wonderful to have a better understanding of what they are working through. Hope I can help provide them with some of the support they need to find their paths to satisfying lives.

  3. lucy kariuki

    i have enjoyed reading your post.am kenyan who is trying to understand and also give those kids with autisim a school that seeks to understand and take’s them for who they are .

  4. miriam

    have a daughter who is autistic and i would like help.

  5. Eloquent, heartfelt amazing speech. His message is exactly right – appreciate the challenges those on the spectrum face AND the many gifts they have to offer our society. Amen

  6. Miriam, I run a Facebook page for girls and women with autism and their families. You will find a lot of information there! https://www.facebook.com/AutismGirls

  7. ann kennedy

    adam is my neighbour, a fantastic young man, such a kind guy, wonderful fresh and gentle face and he knows i have asperger, diagnosed late in life, very late in life, i am glad adam is pushing the boundaries, i would hate anyone to have experienced what i have, i am 62 and with people like Adam saying it as it is, there is some hope that experience will be better, if OTHER people tried equally as hard as we do. well done adam.

  8. Farah Firdos

    I have a son with similar condition, will really appreciate any kind of help

  9. Orla Hynes

    Well done Adam.

  10. Jill

    My 11 year old son has Aspergers, ADHD and he has recently been diagnosed with unspecified anxiety disorder. I so appreciate your candid talk about “not belonging to this world”. It is something that he struggles with, wanting so bad to “belong” and not succeeding and being judged poorly for that attempt. He is so brave to keep trying, it is not easy for him to stay positive and to see himself as a likeable, worthwhile person in todays society. I would so like to help advocate for him and these kids here in Alberta, and throughout Canada. I would love to try something experiential in school, where the entire class has to get out of their comfort zone for just a moment, to experience the everyday reality that is my son’s existence. Cover up their eyes, put headphones with blaring music on, flash bright lights in the room intermittently, play loud music when the teacher is explaining what to do and then get mad at them when they can’t do what was asked… most of all to take just one kid, and do that. And then, have the rest of the class walk away, ignore, or be mean to them. Maybe then, they would understand.

    • I am so proud to say that I work with Adam and a whole network of people who believe that we can change attitudes and outcomes through good quality information. Information is power. You can’t change what you don’t understand. We are running a very successful School Autism Awareness Programme Jill, doing precisely what you describe. It is through personal experience that people realise the difficulties that a child or adult with autism has to suffer while trying to survive the world of the ‘Neurotypical’ or ‘Neuro majority’. Young people are so open and enthusiastic to change the world for the better. Sometimes it can be hard to change habits and attitudes of a lifetime, but I am so encouraged by the younger generation. I do believe that with very little effort by every person, the Autism Community will live more comfortable and productive lives while releasing potential which is often ignored by society. It is our hope as parents that in time our sons will benefit from a more equal and understanding society for all.

  11. Kerrylee

    Well done Adam. Unless we talk about this we can never educate people. I’m am in the process of trying to open specialised preschools and the government have me jumping through hoops. Yet to open my Neuro typical preschool all I had to do is fill in a form, show I have the staff and that was it. I have a team of SLT, BCBA and OT’s ready to go and I’m still waiting to hear if they will allow it!!!

  12. Karen Lundy


    Karen D. Lundy, LL.B.

    The schools have embraced quiet or calming rooms to deescalate special needs children when they are having a meltdown. The Autism Societies have approved these rooms to deal with spectrum children’s challenging behaviours. While in theory these rooms have merit, there have been many challenges with the educators’ use of these rooms.

    The public schools are not integrating special needs students

    The Ontario Human Rights Code protects special needs students against discrimination because of their disability. This legislation supports including autistic children in public schools to be socialized with their neurotypical peers. This is not a reality in our public school system and also other jurisdictions.

    IRPC S, IEP S of special needs students are ignored daily

    My child’s classroom teachers took my moderate to high functioning child back down to the autism room with the very high needs (nonverbal, non toilet trained) children in contravention of his IRPC and IEP. Although I protested by asking the principal to see that the IEP is followed, the classroom teacher was uncomfortable teaching my child and the school was unhelpful. My son was frequently taken to the quiet room for naps because the teachers had no patience with minor behaviours (perseverative questions).

    Unsafe Quiet Room

    The quiet room at my son’s school had a door with a window made from safety glass. Spectrum children may self injure and head bang. My son has some neurological tics during which he may speak very loudly. One of the Educational Assistants told my son to “Stop that awful noise”. My son got upset and banged his head through the safety glass in the quiet room window necessitating a trip to emergency.

    There is a multi million dollar lawsuit for injuries to a neurotypical student against the Halton school board proceeding through the court system.

    Anther lawsuit involves a spectrum student being confined to a quiet room without a toilet resulting in a toilet accident.

    The school is not a partner in resolving problems involving special needs students

    I requested that safety glass in the quiet room be replaced with glass that crumbles. I need to constantly remind the educators that my son’s education is not just my problem and that we need to be jointly invested in a solution.

    Safety Plans of Special Needs Students are Ignored Daily

    I brought all the concerns about my son to the attention of the educators so that a safety plan could be created. I identified the triggers which could cause meltdowns. The staff that worked hands on with my son and other staff that were involved with my son resisted and ignored my input.

    Although I appealed to the interdisciplinary team and my own experts to deal with such behaviour by Special Education teachers, breaches of the safety plan occurred regularly causing my son to act out.

    The school’s response has been to progressively ostracize my son by exclusion.

    I have run out of people to complain to

    I attempted to consult with the IEP, requested IRPCS, stated my concerns to the educators going up the ladder to the Superintendent, the Trustee and my Member of Parliament. The educators circle wagons and my concerns have not been addressed.

    I can only conclude that the educators do not value special needs students and intend to download the expense of educating such students to their families contrary to the law. This issue extends beyond the bad behaviour of the educators at my son’s school. The issue has arisen in other school boards and other jurisdictions including United States and the U.K. The parents must in addition to supporting a special needs child, find the resources and support systems to push back against the machinery of the School Boards.

    Going Forward

    This is what needs to happen for our special needs children:

    The Ministry needs to develop a bill of rights for special needs children.

    A body independent of the Board and staffed by people who are trained and sensitive to students with disabilities and their families should be established to investigate and handle complaints of assaults on special needs students.

    Mandatory course material on special education should be created at teachers and professional colleges and professional development conferences to ensure that educators and interdisciplinary team members have the insight and skills to teach special needs children.

    I have sat around the tables with the educators and listened to them make promises which are repeatedly broken. Now I need to see what they are doing.

  13. Carol ONeil

    Thank you Adam for this talk. Everything you say is true.At age 56, I am learning how much I don’t know. I will try my best to adopt your plan. It is a must.

  14. trisha

    It was a joy to discover in my 67th year I have a relevant number on the spectrum. As I read and learned it was like finding lost family.
    Many of the coping mechanisms I had discovered a version of for myself. Life still dishes out ‘boggle’ anxiety follows me about. I am reluctant to socialise be…I just know I’ll get it wrong…often I figure out after the event but alas it
    doesnt stop me from mucking up again.
    Ear plugs rescued me in child bearing years.
    67!!! Never even guessed. Just knew I often saw things differently from most.

    • Barb Polhamius

      Thanks for your comment. I have just been diagnosed at 64. It was in truth like finding my own tribe, answer to all that has been plaguing me all my life. Thanks to Adam for this, of course.

  15. Una

    Thank you for yet another inspirational, open, honest and easily understood talk Adam.
    As a mum to two amazing girls on the spectrum, as a person on the mild end of the spectrum and as a fellow advocate I think you are amazing and are changing the way a lot of not just Irish but people worldwide think, understand and that will in time create empathy and acceptance.
    Your doing something quite literally amazing and that mean’s the world to families like ours! Thank you.

  16. Pingback: “feeling like a piece of a jigsaw in the wrong box” – 10 reasons we BLOG! | autisticandproud

  17. Yeah… I’m an autistic “savant”. I can figure out how the universe works, I can solve serious social-economic problems that are destroying the planet, and yet I’m unemployed and mostly ignored. Perhaps because, while I have very high cognitive capacity, I can’t talk very well… but my situation is kinda ridiculous, I must say…. So all my work collects dust instead…

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  19. Sandra Millan

    I have a son in the spectrum, he has a BS in IT and worked very hard to get his degree! He go out of school and a year later was able to get a job working in a call center at Coverges a company that does tech suppot for Apple! He had a 98% tech rating but got fired for not having empathy enough with the clients! Someone thought he did not say he was sorry enough to the clients and he was fired with cause! Now he cant even colect unemplyment!

  20. Hi Hailey, just to be aware the you refer in the article on the fifth line to Adam speaking at ‘TEDxUSD’ it should be ‘TEDxDCU’. Thanks!

  21. Doe

    You guys really need to stop allowing people to demean you. The main purpose of this diagnosis is to add insult to injury — the sooner people who get tossed into the autistic diagnosis realize this, the better off you’ll be. You lack a small part of knowledge that is handed down by most peoples’ — something that shapes the rest of us in ways that alter who we truly are from the first day.

    It is arrogance and sheer hubris that keeps the rest of us this way. While I was not diagnosed as autistic at any point, I had some of the hallmarks of williams as a kid, and I continually worry that there’s a chance that I might have something worse. But the changes that have occurred to me over the years — where my personality began to change, where I began to fade into the background and lost control of my own actions on a daily basis — have made me wonder if I would not have been luckier to be one of you. This may only be my case, but I’ve seen enough signs in people I’ve known over the years to indicate it may or may not be.

    Please stand up for yourselves. Realize that this world is not heaven, and that the way people are treating you is not from a lack of understanding — they will simply change the way they address you to better hide their intent. It’s not literally eat or be eaten, but the metaphor runs strong in every other way — look into it more if you can. Try to understand how people have interpreted things from the bible to justify and eventually cause their behavior towards you. Try to separate the people who are on your side from the people who say they are to think they can be better Christians, Jews, or simply human beings.

    Fight back, or things will get worse as they look increasingly better on the outside.

  22. Nkosi Lawrence

    I have resently been diagnosed with Aspergers and im couping considerably well. I’m intreuged to be part of the conversations which endure hoping I can learn more.

  23. Colin Moerdyle

    I think just giving the people on the spectrum the room to gracefully exit the social situation when it becomes overwhelming can go a long way. To be able to say “I need to leave / I need to “shut down” and not listen to the “small talk” around the table for a while”, and not feel like an antisocial asshole.
    To put on the headphones in the middle of a noisy office party (no one would object to hard-of-hearing people putting on listening device or short-sighted people wearing classes, so why not let the oversensitive person reduce the ambient noise?) Then it’s less likely that the said person will call in sick to avoid the festivities. We get advice to talk about things that interest NT: family, sports, TV. Let us say a few words about our special interests: you may actually learn something. And, while some autistics find it hard to “read” people, some do it too well and know when they are subtly rejected, ostracized or mocked. They can even “act” NT and blend in, but they know they don’t fit in. They fool others, but not themselves. What they do want is to be accepted as they are, not to learn how to act “normal”.

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