The Language of Autism
Are people with autism trapped in their own world? Or are the rest of us just trapped in ours?
After seeing 27-year-old Amanda Baggs, featured in this month’s Wired magazine, you may rethink your views of the so-called “normal” world. Ms. Baggs, who lives in Burlington, Vt., is autistic and doesn’t speak. But she has become an Internet sensation as a result of an unusual video she created called “In My Language.'’
For the first three minutes of the video, she rocks, flaps her hands, waves a piece of paper, buries her face in a book and runs her fingers repeatedly across a computer keyboard, all while humming a haunting two-note tune.
Then, the words “A Translation” appear on the screen.
Although Ms. Baggs doesn’t speak, she types 120 words a minute. Using a synthesized voice generated by a software application, Ms. Baggs types out what is going on inside her head. The movement, the noise, the repetitive behaviors are all part of Ms. Baggs’ own “native” language, she says via her computerized voice. It’s a language that allows her to have a “constant conversation” with her surroundings.
My language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment, reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.
Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me….The way I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all. But it is a way of thinking in its own right.
Ms. Baggs does far more than give us a vivid glimpse into her mind. Her video is a clarion call on behalf of people with cognitive disabilities whose way of communicating isn’t understood by the rest of the world. As the story in Wired points out, Ms. Baggs is at the forefront of a nascent civil rights movement on behalf of people with autism.
“I remember in ‘99, seeing a number of gay pride Web sites,'’ she tells the magazine. “I envied how many there were and wished there was something like that for autism. Now there is.”
Watching Ms. Baggs rock and flap is to see a person most of us would define as disabled. And that’s why the impact of the computerized voice and her cogent argument on behalf of people with autism is so powerful.
In the end I want you to know that this has not been intended as a voyeuristic freak show where you get to look at the bizarre workings of the autistic mind. It is meant as a strong statement on the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in the world….Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.
Update: To read more about the autism activism movement, see “How About Not ‘Curing’ Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading,” which appeared in the Times in 2004. To read the story, click here.