The YouTube clip opens with a woman facing away from the camera, rocking back and forth, flapping her hands awkwardly, and emitting an eerie hum. She then performs strange repetitive behaviors: slapping a piece of paper against a window, running a hand lengthwise over a computer keyboard, twisting the knob of a drawer. She bats a necklace with her hand and nuzzles her face against the pages of a book. And you find yourself thinking: Who’s shooting this footage of the handicapped lady, and why do I always get sucked into watching the latest viral video?
But then the words “A Translation” appear on a black screen, and for the next five minutes, 27-year-old Amanda Baggs — who is autistic and doesn’t speak — describes in vivid and articulate terms what’s going on inside her head as she carries out these seemingly bizarre actions. In a synthesized voice generated by a software application, she explains that touching, tasting, and smelling allow her to have a “constant conversation” with her surroundings. These forms of nonverbal stimuli constitute her “native language,” Baggs explains, and are no better or worse than spoken language. Yet her failure to speak is seen as a deficit, she says, while other people’s failure to learn her language is seen as natural and acceptable.
And you find yourself thinking: She might have a point.
So. READ the long and great article first, and now, here is the youtube clip.
And this is how the article, which you HAVE TO read, ends:
Back in Burlington, Baggs is cueing up another YouTube clip. She angles her computer screen so I can see it. Set to the soundtrack of Queen’s “Under Pressure,” it’s a montage of close-up videos showing behaviors like pen clicking, thumb twiddling, and finger tapping. The message: Why are some stress-related behaviors socially permissible, while others — like the rocking bodies and flapping arms commonly associated with autism — are not? Hit count for the video at last check: 80,000 and climbing.
Should autism be treated? Yes, says Baggs, it should be treated with respect. “People aren’t interested in us functioning with the brains we have,” she says, because autism is considered to be outside the range of normal variability. “I don’t fit the stereotype of autism. But who does?” she asks, hammering especially hard on the keyboard. “The definition of autism is so fluid and changing every few years.” What’s exciting, she says, is that Mottron and other scientists have “found universal strengths where others usually look for universal deficits.” Neuro-cognitive science, she says, is finally catching up to what she and many other adults with autism have been saying all along.
Baggs is working on some new videos. One project is tentatively titled “Am I a Person Yet?” She’ll explore communication, empathy, self-reflection — core elements of the human experience that have at times been used to define personhood itself. And at various points during the clip, she’ll ask: “Am I a person yet?” It’s a provocative idea, and you might find yourself thinking: She has a point.