Neurodiversity the key that unlocked my world Elisabeth Wiklander TEDxGöteborg | ow
3:02PM Aug 26, 2021
My name is Elizabeth Alexander and I, I am autistic. What do you think about when you hear the word autistic?
you react when you hear the word autism? Would you say that it is a lifelong disorder and impairment, or disability. This is indeed the way medical language describes it. But Autism is so much more than that. No diagnostic manual can truly explain the multifaceted experience of autism. It is a neurological difference. With a fast spectrum of representation within its population.
It can come with remarkable gifts and skills, as well as devastating traits. But autism doesn't necessarily equal disability. And thankfully, today we have a word that challenges this negative terminology. neuro diversity. neuro diversity describes how diverse we are as human beings from a neurological perspective. It suggests that the many variations of human brains like autistic ones, should be accepted as a natural and valuable part of humanity's genetic legacy. DNA shows us that autism is primarily a genetic condition, something that has been passed down through generations, and is still widely shared in the general population. These genes can carry something so positive, in spite of the difference they cause, that they have persisted throughout our evolution and still flourish today. Some of our important inventions, pieces of art and music, and discoveries in scientific fields that have moved our world forwards come from artistic minds. With today's exciting new technologies in neuroscience, we have seen that autistic brains differ from the norm. Not only that, but it appears as if each and every one differs in its own unique way. So Autism is rich in expression, but still faces limiting generalizations. Today, I want to talk about the autism that I display, the one that blends with normality, and can have catastrophic impacts on people's lives, not necessarily because of the autism itself. But because of the ignorance of it, or the failure to recognize that it is there in the first place, as I eventually would discover. Now, in social situations, we do have expectations upon one another. We use a certain kind of rulebook, which when followed, rewards us with social acceptance. But I always felt that I was different. The trouble was, I couldn't explain how, and certainly not why. It felt as if I had been provided a different rulebook. And that I lacked a community to fall back upon that could confirm to me that the way I interpreted the world was valid too. So I grew up feeling very misunderstood by pretty much everybody, even within my own family. If I applied what would have been my motives, my intentions upon someone else's behavior, or vice versa, the outcome was often negative, and very confusing. So to me, the social world became scary and unpredictable. Now I did notice, however, especially during my school years here in Sweden, that my mind had been blessed with gifts, like analytical skills, and intense mental focus, high capacity for memorizing information, which made studying very pleasurable and easy. So in my academic pursuit, I came here to Gothenburg where I studied at the University. I later went to the Netherlands, where I obtained my master of music. And today, I live in the UK, working as a professional cellist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra, touring the world. But this however, is quite unusual. For me to stand on a stage just talking to you, without my instruments, I can't help the feeling that I have forgotten it somewhere. Okay, so one may now think, okay, she placed in this great orchestra, she's obviously done pretty well for herself. What's the problem? Well, I have a very literal mind. And it constantly clashes with both nonverbal and verbal subtleties in social situations. It gives me a very direct line of approach and speech in everyday conversations. I still don't really understand the purpose of small talk, although I can appreciate it now. And jokes and sarcasm fly completely over my head. My mind just takes things in. So literally, it loves to analyze everything. My world is a very intense one. My senses are heightened. My brain
absorbs everything in through an amplifier. My special interests can completely consume me. And my emotions, pay go from the highest of high to the lowest of low and they're on and off like a light switch. My family bless them.
They can still stand in utter disbelief when I go from a complete nuclear blast to rainbows and butterflies in less than two seconds, literally. So okay, autism influences my thoughts, my imagination, my senses, my emotions, and the way I process information. But without knowing this, it was very difficult to maintain friendships. Because our social expectations were so different. I could come across as odd. And I experienced a good amount of bullying for it. But the most devastating. The most devastating were the eroding misunderstandings that dominated the relationships with the people closest to me. Body signals, misread words completely misinterpreted. It was so frustrating, it was like fighting a ghost, something that no one could really grasp, not even the counselors were sought for help. So it was a mentally agonizing situation that persisted year after year. And in my mid 20s, I had reached a really dark place. And I started to be truly scared for my future. But then, something extraordinary happened that changed everything. In 2006, I heard about Asperger syndrome. It is already an outdated term today, but it is still a form of autism on the high functioning end of the spectrum. Three years later, when I was 28 years old, I received this diagnosis. And I realized that a good third of my life had been based upon a false perception of myself. Imagine that. No wonder my life had been so confusing. But now, now I started to see myself in a new, clear context. My whole life and all my experiences started to make sense. This launched me on an incredible journey of enlightenment and transformation. I had finally been given something that allowed me to explore the relativity of my perception of the world compared to others. I gained access into that mysterious rulebook. And I could start comparing it with mine. And so I learned to identify my differences. So in the coming years, I found efficient ways to improve my social skills. I learned to verbalize my needs, recognized by limitations and develop my strengths. I found it successful strategies to navigate my everyday life and significantly improved or the disabling traits of my diagnosis. But this took a lot of commitment, dedication, and hard work. Because Autism is a spectrum. I had to become like a researcher and collect a lot of information from a lot of different sources over a long period of time in order to be able to complete my unique life puzzle. When I felt that I had reached the level of conformity that society demanded, I kept feeling that something was not quite right. Something was still missing. I could change the way I acted. But I cannot change the way I am. Mine natural, biological calibration is and always will be autistic. And the problem I had now is to live up to these new high social standards that I had set for myself, I had come to understand my differences. But as you all know, a relationship is a two way streets. Without acceptance and understanding for the real me, I would never be truly happy. And this prompted me to one day make quite a radical move. On the second of April 2015, I announced my autism on social media, and I started to talk about it with everybody, openly back just like that.
I admit it was absolutely terrifying. Because I had encountered what was out there, the stigma of prejudice. I was very afraid that people would put their preconceived ideas of autism onto me, rather than letting me show them what autism can look like.
But this didn't happen. What happened was that my life changed completely. almost overnight, I was met with curiosity. And support started to flood in from everywhere, from friends, from family, from colleagues, and from people I didn't even know me just started to take notice. And people who recognize themselves in my story started to contact me from near and far for help. Seeing how common The situation was, and how efficiently it could be reversed, using the same tools that I had, it inspired me to share my experience further, that the knowledge of neurodiversity opens new communication channels between us by identifying differences we didn't know of before, because they have been hidden in our minds. It unlocked my world with a key to identify my differences, and to communicate these in a way that we could all understand. So today, I am a very happy person. I've got wonderful friendships, I've connected deeper with my family members, and I'm experiencing what it is to be in a happy, healthy relationship with a wonderful man, who's thankfully also very patient, because misunderstandings, they still do happen. But now, now they can be resolved. So they're no longer a threat to our relationship we have toward one another, to read each other's rule books, and it is enriching both of our lives. I'm still autistic. But I love it. I embrace it, I can no longer align myself with the word disabled. Because in retrospect, I understand that the suffering that I have experienced does not stem from my autism itself, but from the impacts of ignorance about it. So if we need a cure for anything, it's not for autism. It's for ignorance and intolerance.
differences are always challenging. But they are equally what makes this world such a beautiful and spectacular place. By recognizing how we differ from each other from a neurological perspective, helps us to coexist more smoothly without having to carve so much in our authenticity, allowing our natural skills, talents, and creativity more freedom to roam, not just for people on the autism spectrum, but for all. By joining forces, we can create a larger picture of ourselves and inspire each other on new levels. The autistic population is not an insignificant one. In the UK only. We are nearly 1 million people. So knowingly or not you will find us amongst your friends and colleagues. We might be a family member, your boss or a neighbor. You might have fallen in love with someone on the autism spectrum. Why? Why must we wear a one size fits all? because it fits the majority of people? Should what is neurologically accepted be determined by? What's the majority? is human value determined by what is the majority? No, of course not. But yet, a lot of autistic individuals, too many can still not access their basic rights as citizens, because ignorance of our different still permeates every aspect of society. We deserve the same access to education. With knowledge and flexibility regarding our unique information processing, we deserve the same access to the workforce. with understanding for our sensitivity to social deciphering and sensory input. We deserve appreciation and recognitions for our skills. And we deserve the same access to adequate help and support where the true source of our struggle is better recognized. All services have to start evolving towards taking neurodiversity into account. Or a lot of people will continue to fall through the net, and that is ultimately harmful to our entire society. It is unacceptable that because some don't fit a standard norm, they risk being bullied, discriminated, labeled as impaired and pushed to the edge of society becoming spectators behind the glass wall. It is a weakness that deprives us of contributions from unique minds that are valuable to us all. Because they're different, because they think outside the box. The quirky kid from school, like me, has just as much to offer the world as anybody else. Every human being is a resource, and society has to broaden its framework to allow everyone a place in it. This may seem a daunting task, but we mustn't be discouraged. extraordinary things can and have been done by ordinary people, no matter through which spectrum we perceive the world. Thank you.