This 22-Year-Old Activist Will Change How You See Autism

Photo courtesy of TED.

The first surprising thing about Alix Generous is how funny she is. “You might have noticed that my voice doesn’t have much inflection,” she told a crowd of a couple hundred people this May. “People say I sound like a GPS, and this can make basic communication a challenge,” she pauses, “Unless you need directions.”

Her voice, it’s true, is noticeably flat, but her timing’s impeccable — and the room laughs, more raucously than you’d expect at a TED talk at 8:30 a.m. The subject of that talk is the second surprising thing about Generous: She has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder on the Autism spectrum, marked by difficulty with social interactions. Alix has spent her life struggling to figure out how to fit in with peers, and has battled depression that stems in part from that difficulty.

But, maybe what’s most surprising of all is how incredibly successful Alix is, in spite or because of all that. After a childhood spent in a haze of mis-prescribed medication, Alix made it to college, where she won a national award for her research on coral reefs — research she presented at the United Nations. Now, at 22, she’s finishing school, touring as a speaker, and raising money for her tech start-up.

That company, called AutismSees, is a set of online tools that help autistic people learn social tricks — from eye contact on up — that are useful in finding jobs. “The real goal is creating a bridge, connecting autism to the rest of the world. We want everyone to know that people can have or develop the skills they need to live a happy life,” Generous says.

We caught up with her in late May, the morning after her thunderously well-received talk, as she was about to head off to spend the summer road-tripping around in a rented RV. We pilfered a few snacks from the venue (for the road!) and sat to chat about her life and future.

You talk a lot about struggling with everyday social situations. Does it ever surprise you that you became such a successful speaker?
"It’s weird, because you have this idea of success in your mind, but when you actually are at a point where people say you are successful, it doesn’t match with the idea you had. Also, for me, I’ve struggled with depression. What happens when you’re depressed is that you don’t feel things as they are — you have a block.

"My mind wasn’t focused on, Oh, my God, I’m doing so well, but more like, I need to make sure the speech does this well enough. I was more focused on making sure the speech moved forward, or that I could connect with people. I’m scared I won’t have my stuff together enough to make it a good performance.

"But, I love speaking now; it’s one of my favorite things in the world. In a lot of fields, like when you’re working in the lab, you don’t get the instant gratification — the sense that you’re helping people. When you’re speaking, you feel like your idea has reached people’s heartstrings, instantly. I know that sounds cheesy."

You have this idea of success in your mind, but when you're at the point where people say you're successful, it doesn’t match that idea.

Is there one message you’re most trying to get across?
"One of my good friends, who’s a Mormon, told me that when she reads the Bible, she can read the same passage but take away something completely different, depending on what’s going on in her life. So, to start, I think speaking’s a little like that.

"But, in terms of what I’d want people to take away, it comes down to this: Listen and be kind. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to not be a jerk. The world doesn’t need more intelligent people; it needs people who are kinder."

Have your life experiences led you to that message?
"Yes… There are a few [people] out there who can be very condescending. I’ve been hurt by people. I mean, nobody came up and stabbed me, but, just the vibes and the energy they put out towards me. A lot of people only appreciate difference and diversity when it’s convenient.

"People don’t walk out the door in the morning saying, 'Today, I’m going to be a racist jerk.' Nobody goes out into the world and says, 'Today, I’m going to make a person with autism feel like crap.' People just go about their daily lives, thinking about their husband or their cat, and then they encounter situations in which they don’t have the understanding or awareness to really be conscious of what they’re doing.

"You know, it’s like they say some people will walk down the street and see a black man approaching them and they cross the street. Unless he’s holding a machete, there’s something they’ve learned or assumed that makes them do that — and they don’t realize he’s just another person."

Nobody goes out into the world and says, 'Today, I’m going to make a person with autism feel like crap.'

Are people ever surprised when they learn you’re austistic?
"Well, people with autism don’t come up to you and say, 'Hi, I’m autistic.' But, it’s not about what people get right or wrong; most of these things happen out of ignorance. [People should just] listen and be kind — to everyone."

How do you feel like that manifests for you?
"Most people who don’t know who I am or what I’ve done just tend to brush me off. They don’t hear the weird side comments I make or see how funny I am. With autism, because of how my ideas are displayed and my lack of social skills — well, if you didn’t know me, my body language wouldn’t make you want to come up and talk to me.

"I say socially awkward things. It’s not as random as one might think; my mind goes a thousand miles per hour and in a split second, I’ll have an idea that’s three or four conversations ahead of where we are. When I walk into a room, I take in everything. A normal person would just be focused on you, what you’re doing, but instead, I’m hearing everything, I’m taking in everything, and I have to consciously push past that to listen to you.

"People have told me that my body language looks offensive, or [have] criticized me for using overly technical terms, [saying] it’s a way of pushing people away. It’s like, no, I just naturally have a very advanced vocabulary; I think in these kinds of words. But that leads to people misinterpreting — I love making new friends."

The world doesn’t need more intelligent people; it needs people who are kinder.

Your company is about teaching people the skills they need to overcome some of those social obstacles. What are some of the things you’ve learned?
"What everyone needs is different, but one of the cool things I learned is validation and reflexive statements: It’s this really awesome social-skill trick where you just mirror what the person says back to you. You could say, 'I’m having problems at home with my roommate,' and I’d say, 'That sounds like a difficult situation. Do you want to talk about it?' Don’t input anything of yourself; just flip it back and give them the opportunity to speak. People end up feeling very connected to you, because people like to talk about themselves.

"It’s not about using those skills every second of the day; obviously, when I go home, I wear my unicorn onesie and watch Netflix with my cat. But it’s about being able to know how to do it when it’s necessary."

Any other sage advice for getting past the tough times?
"You have to learn to act beyond your feelings — to make conscious decisions towards goals you want, rather than how you feel. When I’ve had depression, sometimes I don’t have to get out of bed. Then, [I] say, 'I have certain goals, so I’m going to make a conscious decision to do the things that make that goal.'

"It’s ironic; I just said 'listen to people,' but when it comes to living your own dreams, don’t listen to anyone — and follow your heart. There were times, [like] when I was in this god-awful treatment center and I didn’t have anyone to believe in me, [when] I had to make a conscious choice to keep going. It’s then you’ve got to remember: It’s not other people’s life. It’s my life."

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