Alix Generous: How I learned to communicate my inner life with Asperger's Aug 2015
Today, I want to talk to you about dreams.
I have been a lucid dreamer my whole life, and it's cooler than in the movies. (Laughter) Beyond flying, breathing fire, and making hot men spontaneously appear ... (Laughter) I can do things like read and write music. Fun fact is that I wrote my personal statement to college in a dream. And I did accepted. So, yeah.
I am a very visual thinker. I think in pictures, not words. To me, words are more like instincts and language.
There are many people like me; Nikola Tesla, for example, who could visualize, design, test, and troubleshoot everything -- all of his inventions -- in his mind, accurately.
Language is kind of exclusive to our species, anyway. I am a bit more primitive, like a beta version of Google Translate. (Laughter)
My brain has the ability to hyper-focus on things that interest me. For example, once I had an affair with calculus that lasted longer than some celebrity marriages. (Laughter)
There are some other unusual things about me. You may have noticed that I don't have much inflection in my voice. That's why people often confuse me with a GPS. (Laughter) This can make basic communication a challenge, unless you need directions. (Laughter) Thank you. (Applause)
A few years ago, when I started doing presentations, I went to get head shots done for the first time. The photographer told me to look flirty. (Laughter) And I had no idea what she was talking about. (Laughter)
She said, "Do that thing, you know, with your eyes, when you're flirting with guys."
"What thing?" I asked.
"You know, squint."
And so I tried, really. It looked something like this. (Laughter) I looked like I was searching for Waldo. (Laughter)
There's a reason for this, as there is a reason that Waldo is hiding. (Laughter)
I have Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism that impairs the basic social skills one is expected to display. It's made life difficult in many ways, and growing up, I struggled to fit in socially. My friends would tell jokes, but I didn't understand them. My personal heroes were George Carlin and Stephen Colbert -- and they taught me humor. My personality switched from being shy and awkward to being defiant and cursing out a storm. Needless to say, I did not have many friends. I was also hypersensitive to texture. The feel of water on my skin was like pins and needles, and so for years, I refused to shower. I can assure you that my hygiene routine is up to standards now, though. (Laughter)
I had to do a lot to get here, and my parents -- things kind of got out of control when I was sexually assaulted by a peer, and on top of everything, it made a difficult situation worse. And I had to travel 2,000 miles across the country to get treatment, but within days of them prescribing a new medication, my life turned into an episode of the Walking Dead. I became paranoid, and began to hallucinate that rotting corpses were coming towards me. My family finally rescued me, but by that time, I had lost 19 pounds in those three weeks, as well as developing severe anemia, and was on the verge of suicide.
I transferred to a new treatment center that understood my aversions, my trauma, and my social anxiety, and they knew how to treat it, and I got the help I finally needed. And after 18 months of hard work, I went on to do incredible things.
One of the things with Asperger's is that oftentimes, these people have a very complex inner life, and I know for myself, I have a very colorful personality, rich ideas, and just a lot going on in my mind. But there's a gap between where that stands, and how I communicate it with the rest of the world. And this can make basic communication a challenge.
Not many places would hire me, due to my lack of social skills, which is why I applied to Waffle House. (Laughter) Waffle House is an exceptional 24-hour diner -- (Laughter) (Applause) thank you -- where you can order your hash browns the many ways that someone would dispose of a human corpse ... (Laughter) Sliced, diced, peppered, chunked, topped, capped, and covered. (Laughter) As social norms would have it, you should only go to Waffle House at an ungodly hour in the night. (Laughter) So one time, at 2 am, I was chatting with a waitress, and I asked her, "What's the most ridiculous thing that's happened to you on the job?" And she told me that one time, a man walked in completely naked. (Laughter) I said, "Great! Sign me up for the graveyard shift!" (Laughter) Needless to say, Waffle House did not hire me.
So in terms of having Asperger's, it can be viewed as a disadvantage, and sometimes it is a real pain in the butt, but it's also the opposite. It's a gift, and it allows me to think innovatively. At 19, I won a research competition for my research on coral reefs, and I ended up speaking at the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, presenting this research. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) And at 22, I'm getting ready to graduate college, and I am a co-founder of a biotech company called AutismSees. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)
But consider what I had to do to get here: 25 therapists, 11 misdiagnoses, and years of pain and trauma. I spent a lot of time thinking if there's a better way, and I think there is: autism-assistive technology. This technology could play an integral role in helping people with autistic spectrum disorder, or ASD.
The app Podium, released by my company, AutismSees, has the ability to independently assess and help develop communication skills. In addition to this, it tracks eye contact through camera and simulates a public-speaking and job-interview experience. And so maybe one day, Waffle House will hire me, after practicing on it some more. (Laughter) And one of the great things is that I've used Podium to help me prepare for today, and it's been a great help. But it's more than that. There's more that can be done. For people with ASD -- it has been speculated that many innovative scientists, researchers, artists, and engineers have it; like, for example, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Isaac Newton, and Bill Gates are some examples. But the problem that's encountered is that these brilliant ideas often can't be shared if there are communication roadblocks. And so, many people with autism are being overlooked every day, and they're being taken advantage of. So my dream for people with autism is to change that, to remove the roadblocks that prevent them from succeeding.
One of the reasons I love lucid dreaming is because it allows me to be free, without judgment of social and physical consequences. When I'm flying over scenes that I create in my mind, I am at peace. I am free from judgment, and so I can do whatever I want, you know? I'm making out with Brad Pitt, and Angelina is totally cool with it. (Laughter)
But the goal of autism-assistive technology is bigger than that, and more important. My goal is to shift people's perspective of autism and people with higher-functioning Asperger's because there is a lot they can do. I mean, look at Temple Grandin, for example. And by doing so, we allow people to share their talents with this world and move this world forward. In addition, we give them the courage to pursue their dreams in the real world, in real time.