Listening, kindness, and individuality: The advice one student with Asperger’s has for us all


Alix Generous, one of the youngest speakers at the TEDWomen 2015 conference, is an undergraduate student with Asperger’s syndrome. She is also a biology researcher, United Nations presenter  — and co-owner of the startup AutismSees, which offers technology tools designed to make presentations easier for people who avoid eye contact.

We caught up with Alix to discuss mental diversity, the DSM-V — and the idea that complex problems require unique minds.

For people who are just starting to learn about about the autism spectrum and the diversity of minds, where would you recommend they start? Are there any books or authors that you think do a nice job of explaining these topics?

Wikipedia. I would highly suggest Wikipedia. As for books, Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree. Also, A Mind Apart by Susanne Antonetta. She’s a very famous neuroscientist. If you want to get into more pop culture neuroscience about mental disorders and stuff like that, I would suggest Oliver Sacks. He makes neuroscience and case studies sexy.

Now, if you want to be hardcore (like I do), you could read the DSM-V [the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. The nice thing is that it is understandable, and a lot of it is bullet points and lists of symptoms. So it’s not this dense book like everybody thinks it is. I mean, it’s a big book, but you’re not reading boring, small-worded essays — you’re actually seeing what doctors use to diagnose people with behavior problems. I started reading it when I was 13, when the DSM-IV was out, and I learned a lot. It debunks a lot of myths and stigmas associated with mental illness.

The one problem is that [the switch from autism to autism spectrum disorder in the DSM-V] generalizes autism, so for people who aren’t educated about it, they’ll assume that Asperger’s is the same thing as non-verbal autism. At the same time, in terms of the neuroscience behind these disorders — behavior, all human behavior, autism or not, exists on a spectrum, and so in that way it is more accurate. But in terms of the ignorance that exists in a lot of populations about autism, it’s not necessarily a good tool.

If you could synthesize your message, what do you want to say to students and teachers around the world about how to best relate to a diversity of minds?

Listen. That’s honestly it. People are often trying to understand people in relation to themselves and what they experience, but you can’t do that. You have to take yourself outside of who you are in order to really understand somebody. So when someone tells you that they have Asperger’s, don’t think of a bunch of symptoms — think about who they are and what they’re interested in and go off of that.

Once we start listening, how can we be more accepting and welcoming? What’s the best way to do that, to make room for everyone?

Be kind. That’s honestly what it comes down to. There is never a reason to be mean — you can even communicate constructive criticism in a manner that’s respectful and without being a pushover. Just be nice, even if you don’t understand.

What do you think that people get wrong about Asperger’s?

Well, oftentimes when people think of disabilities, they think of the extremity of disability. They think of someone who maybe can’t talk at all, and can’t engage in this world, and never has a hope to — but having a disability is not about that. Any label and diagnosis like Asperger’s is something that’s prescribed by a qualified professional in order to get reimbursed for insurance money. And Asperger’s differs from person to person, and you really can’t put it in a box, because everyone’s different. Like me, for example — I don’t care for anime or any of that stuff. I am a girly girl with Asperger’s. People with Asperger’s are stereotyped as being super nerds — and I am a nerd when it comes to science, but not with stuff like anime. But one of my best friends who has Asperger’s is really into all of that, and draws anime, loves Pokemon. My point is that everybody is different, and if you really want to connect with someone with Asperger’s, you do so by talking about something they’re interested in.

It’s all about the individual.

Yeah, it is. And that’s the case with everybody you meet. Regardless of their intelligence — the world does not need more intelligent people, it needs people who are kinder, and who are willing to create more positive energy to make it better.