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TEDWomen 2015

Alix Generous: How I learned to communicate my inner life with Asperger's

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Alix Generous is a young woman with a million and one ideas -- she's done award-winning science, helped develop new technology and tells a darn good joke (you'll see). She has Asperger's, a form of autistic spectrum disorder that can impair the basic social skills required for communication, and she's worked hard for years to learn how to share her thoughts with the world. In this funny, personal talk, she shares her story -- and her vision for tools to help more people communicate their big ideas.

- Advocate
Alix Generous is a college student and biology researcher with Asperger syndrome. She stresses the importance of building accepting environments for all kinds of minds. Full bio

Today, I want to talk to you about dreams.
00:12
I have been a lucid dreamer my whole life,
00:15
and it's cooler than in the movies.
00:18
(Laughter)
00:20
Beyond flying, breathing fire,
00:22
and making hot men
spontaneously appear ...
00:25
(Laughter)
00:28
I can do things like read and write music.
00:30
Fun fact is that I wrote
my personal statement to college
00:33
in a dream.
00:36
And I did accepted. So, yeah.
00:38
I am a very visual thinker.
00:41
I think in pictures, not words.
00:44
To me, words are more like
instincts and language.
00:47
There are many people like me;
00:51
Nikola Tesla, for example,
00:53
who could visualize, design,
test, and troubleshoot everything --
00:56
all of his inventions --
in his mind, accurately.
01:01
Language is kind of exclusive
to our species, anyway.
01:06
I am a bit more primitive,
01:09
like a beta version of Google Translate.
01:12
(Laughter)
01:14
My brain has the ability
to hyper-focus on things that interest me.
01:18
For example, once
I had an affair with calculus
01:23
that lasted longer
than some celebrity marriages.
01:25
(Laughter)
01:28
There are some other
unusual things about me.
01:32
You may have noticed
that I don't have much inflection
01:36
in my voice.
01:39
That's why people
often confuse me with a GPS.
01:40
(Laughter)
01:43
This can make basic communication
a challenge, unless you need directions.
01:48
(Laughter)
01:52
Thank you.
01:56
(Applause)
01:57
A few years ago, when I started
doing presentations,
02:02
I went to get head shots done
for the first time.
02:05
The photographer told me to look flirty.
02:09
(Laughter)
02:12
And I had no idea
what she was talking about.
02:14
(Laughter)
02:17
She said, "Do that thing,
you know, with your eyes,
02:18
when you're flirting with guys."
02:21
"What thing?" I asked.
02:23
"You know, squint."
02:25
And so I tried, really.
02:27
It looked something like this.
02:29
(Laughter)
02:31
I looked like I was searching for Waldo.
02:33
(Laughter)
02:36
There's a reason for this,
02:40
as there is a reason that Waldo is hiding.
02:42
(Laughter)
02:44
I have Asperger's,
02:52
a high-functioning form of autism
02:54
that impairs the basic social skills
one is expected to display.
02:56
It's made life difficult in many ways,
03:02
and growing up,
I struggled to fit in socially.
03:05
My friends would tell jokes,
but I didn't understand them.
03:09
My personal heroes were George Carlin
and Stephen Colbert --
03:14
and they taught me humor.
03:19
My personality switched
from being shy and awkward
03:22
to being defiant and cursing out a storm.
03:26
Needless to say,
I did not have many friends.
03:30
I was also hypersensitive to texture.
03:33
The feel of water on my skin
was like pins and needles,
03:36
and so for years, I refused to shower.
03:40
I can assure you that my hygiene routine
is up to standards now, though.
03:43
(Laughter)
03:47
I had to do a lot to get here,
and my parents --
03:50
things kind of got out of control
when I was sexually assaulted by a peer,
03:54
and on top of everything,
it made a difficult situation worse.
03:59
And I had to travel 2,000 miles
across the country to get treatment,
04:05
but within days of them prescribing
a new medication,
04:10
my life turned into an episode
of the Walking Dead.
04:14
I became paranoid,
and began to hallucinate
04:18
that rotting corpses
were coming towards me.
04:21
My family finally rescued me,
04:24
but by that time, I had lost 19 pounds
in those three weeks,
04:27
as well as developing severe anemia,
04:32
and was on the verge of suicide.
04:34
I transferred to a new treatment center
that understood my aversions,
04:38
my trauma, and my social anxiety,
04:42
and they knew how to treat it,
and I got the help I finally needed.
04:46
And after 18 months of hard work,
04:50
I went on to do incredible things.
04:52
One of the things with Asperger's
is that oftentimes,
04:56
these people have
a very complex inner life,
05:00
and I know for myself,
I have a very colorful personality,
05:02
rich ideas, and just a lot
going on in my mind.
05:05
But there's a gap
between where that stands,
05:08
and how I communicate it
with the rest of the world.
05:12
And this can make
basic communication a challenge.
05:15
Not many places would hire me,
due to my lack of social skills,
05:20
which is why I applied to Waffle House.
05:23
(Laughter)
05:25
Waffle House is an exceptional
24-hour diner --
05:32
(Laughter)
05:35
(Applause)
05:37
thank you --
05:41
where you can order your hash browns
05:42
the many ways that someone
would dispose of a human corpse ...
05:44
(Laughter)
05:47
Sliced, diced, peppered, chunked,
topped, capped, and covered.
05:49
(Laughter)
05:54
As social norms would have it,
05:56
you should only go to Waffle House
at an ungodly hour in the night.
05:57
(Laughter)
06:01
So one time, at 2 am, I was chatting
with a waitress, and I asked her,
06:02
"What's the most ridiculous thing
that's happened to you on the job?"
06:07
And she told me that one time,
a man walked in completely naked.
06:10
(Laughter)
06:14
I said, "Great! Sign me up
for the graveyard shift!"
06:15
(Laughter)
06:18
Needless to say,
Waffle House did not hire me.
06:20
So in terms of having Asperger's,
it can be viewed as a disadvantage,
06:25
and sometimes it is
a real pain in the butt,
06:30
but it's also the opposite.
06:32
It's a gift, and it allows me
to think innovatively.
06:34
At 19, I won a research competition
for my research on coral reefs,
06:38
and I ended up speaking
06:45
at the UN Convention
of Biological Diversity,
06:47
presenting this research.
06:49
(Applause)
06:50
Thank you.
06:52
(Applause)
06:53
And at 22, I'm getting ready
to graduate college,
06:58
and I am a co-founder of a biotech
company called AutismSees.
07:02
(Applause)
07:08
Thank you.
07:09
(Applause)
07:10
But consider what I had to do to get here:
07:13
25 therapists, 11 misdiagnoses,
and years of pain and trauma.
07:16
I spent a lot of time thinking
if there's a better way,
07:22
and I think there is:
autism-assistive technology.
07:25
This technology
could play an integral role
07:30
in helping people
with autistic spectrum disorder,
07:32
or ASD.
07:35
The app Podium, released
by my company, AutismSees,
07:38
has the ability to independently assess
and help develop communication skills.
07:43
In addition to this, it tracks
eye contact through camera
07:49
and simulates a public-speaking
and job-interview experience.
07:53
And so maybe one day,
Waffle House will hire me,
08:00
after practicing on it some more.
08:03
(Laughter)
08:05
And one of the great things
is that I've used Podium
08:09
to help me prepare for today,
and it's been a great help.
08:14
But it's more than that.
08:19
There's more that can be done.
08:21
For people with ASD --
08:24
it has been speculated
that many innovative scientists,
08:27
researchers, artists,
and engineers have it;
08:31
like, for example, Emily Dickinson,
Jane Austen, Isaac Newton, and Bill Gates
08:36
are some examples.
08:42
But the problem that's encountered
08:44
is that these brilliant ideas
often can't be shared
08:46
if there are communication roadblocks.
08:49
And so, many people with autism
are being overlooked every day,
08:53
and they're being taken advantage of.
08:57
So my dream for people with autism
is to change that,
09:01
to remove the roadblocks
that prevent them from succeeding.
09:08
One of the reasons I love lucid dreaming
09:11
is because it allows me to be free,
09:14
without judgment of social
and physical consequences.
09:17
When I'm flying over scenes
that I create in my mind,
09:21
I am at peace.
09:24
I am free from judgment,
09:27
and so I can do whatever I want, you know?
09:29
I'm making out with Brad Pitt,
and Angelina is totally cool with it.
09:31
(Laughter)
09:36
But the goal of autism-assistive
technology is bigger than that,
09:39
and more important.
09:43
My goal is to shift people's perspective
09:45
of autism and people
with higher-functioning Asperger's
09:49
because there is a lot they can do.
09:54
I mean, look at
Temple Grandin, for example.
09:58
And by doing so, we allow people
to share their talents with this world
10:02
and move this world forward.
10:07
In addition, we give them the courage
to pursue their dreams
10:09
in the real world, in real time.
10:12
Thank you.
10:15
(Applause)
10:16
Thank you.
10:19
(Applause)
10:21

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About the Speaker:

Alix Generous - Advocate
Alix Generous is a college student and biology researcher with Asperger syndrome. She stresses the importance of building accepting environments for all kinds of minds.

Why you should listen

Alix Generous has Asperger syndrome, but was misdiagnosed for years. A student and researcher who is passionate about molecular biology and neuroscience, she encourages people like her to share their intelligence and insights. She is a co-owner of the startup AutismSees, which develops technology tools to help all kinds of people give presentations.

At 19, Generous won first place in a nationwide competition for her work in quorum sensing and coral reefs. Her paper titled "Environmental Threats on the Symbiotic Relationship of Coral Reefs and Quorum Sensing," was published in Consilience. In November 2013, she was a youth delegate for the UN Convention of Climate Change (COP19), where she negotiated technology transfers and issues of medical importance. She has assisted neuroscience researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina, Tufts University School of Medicine, and the University of Vermont.

More profile about the speaker
Alix Generous | Speaker | TED.com