Daniel Gross - California State University Presentation Transcript
Autism, to me, is a series of intrinsic differences in both observing the world, and reasoning about the world. They are differences that lead to more misunderstandings than most other differences, which often lead to a lot more judgment, too. I know this, because I have autism myself…I graduated from the University of Connecticut with a BA in Communications, and then from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA. I suppose some could say I have reason to feel special because of that, the good kind of “special”, considering only 35 percent of kids on the autism spectrum go to college. People like me are arguably born into a frightening and complex world, with the unenviable burden of having to not just tolerate that world, but thrive in it, and share themselves with others along the way. It is my greatest hope that the autistic population of this world eventually realizes their ability to positively impact others, more than most people can do, even if it isn’t always easy or rewarding.
I am highly aware of the “basement baby” stereotype of someone with autism, the kind of person who never ventures far from of the town they first call home, never craves new experiences or hard-won achievements, and never meets new friends or prospective life partners. I wouldn’t know how many of you can relate to that stereotype, or know someone who does, but I believe all people, whether born on the spectrum or not, live that way at one time or another. Autistic people are predisposed to this way of thinking and living, and until the age of eighteen I was no exception. I barely spoke to anyone for the longest time, and the things I DID say were often taken straight from movies I was enamored with…little wonder I became a filmmaker! I know I could say it’s this “phase” which helped me learn to love movies, reading, and writing…but truthfully, I still have a deep embarrassment towards the way I used to live, which is why I now crave the new life lessons I seek.
I think the talents that autism helps bring me are heightened perceptual skills, the ability to appreciate interesting visuals and objects, along with sounds and music that stimulate my brain in all kinds of areas. I also like to believe I’m good at shaping all that into quality filmmaking, that allows people to observe things in a film or video the way I think I observe things in life, in a way that naturally elicits emotions instead of beating people over the head with them. I’ve also had to transfer a LOT of those skills into the workings of real life as well, such as the worlds of friendship and dating and networking, and that has been a whole other learning curve in itself. It was a learning curve many years in the making, with a shaky frame of reference as to how people are supposed to feel and behave around me. It was often difficult to learn from social mistakes made in this process, especially if hardly anyone could tell me what the supposedly-obvious mistakes were, and that brings up a very poignant question: How *can* autistic people master the interpersonal lessons they need to learn that other people preternaturally grasp…things like facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language?
I think being “humbled by life” is what does it, in the form of emotional reckonings that most parents, including mine, would do anything to save their kids from. I personally avoided many of these reckonings for a long time, because I never had much vulnerability or life potential at stake until I graduated film school…I simply took comfort in believing in myself and developing my own raw creative talent. But I was never once immune to being terrified of what others think of me, and in some ways I still am, because I will always and forever be ill-equipped to read minds. For me, it’s all about figuring out how best to motivate oneself to venture out into the world even once, let alone over and over again for many years. Fortunately, I believe this is easier for people with autism than it has ever been in today’s diverse technologically visual-driven society…I myself have learned how best to communicate with others that speaks to my autistic soul, and I have over 4,100 Facebook friends to show for it.
However, I’m more than aware that the world of Facebook is not the real world, no matter how much one aides the other…and for all of you persevering, hard-working parents and teachers of young children with autism in today’s real world, in all its beauty and brutality, I have some advice to humbly offer. In my opinion, you lose a LOT in viewing autistic children as ticking time bombs who could have tantrums at any moment, or who could embarrass you at the drop of a hat by saying or doing something inappropriate…that’s ultimately very self-absorbed thinking in a way that you actually *can* control, unlike the autistic child in question who is slowly learning how to. Autism is not homosexuality or feminism, it does not best thrive in the public universe by trying to treat that child as if he or she is no different from anyone else.
That’s the misconception that leads SO many teachers and parents to get ungodly frustrated as to how hard it is to teach something to an autistic child…it’s certainly a very human reaction to be frustrated in that sense, to wonder if you’re doing anything wrong, if you’re just a bad teacher or bad parent, or if your child is instantly guaranteed to be a vagabond or basement baby for life because of how tough it can be to learn things. But one thing that can ease that frustration is to know that once an autistic child DOES learn something, and fully realizes why it’s important to know, that autistic child is highly unlikely to ever forget what he or she has learned. “Normal" people temporarily learn and forget things ALL the time, regardless of their ultimate importance, because they’re often comfortable with committing something to memory without knowing why it’s important…autistic people often need to know why more than most people, they NEED to have their curiosities about people and life in general satisfied, so they can more fully educate themselves in ways they know they need to be educated. Of course, having a significant push in the right direction education-wise at the most crucial of ages is the most key ingredient of all.
Speaking from personal experience, I know that if it weren’t for all the special education, physical therapy, auditory therapy, speech therapy, and exercise training I received from my parents, and if it weren’t for the hundreds of VHS tapes they went broke buying for me as a kid, and if it weren’t for one of the first service dog placements in the world they made with me when I was 9 years old, I probably wouldn’t be here giving this speech right now, speaking about all my experiences with confidence, and I thank you all very much for your undivided attention and support.