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Baggs: Live on an autistic island? Not me

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BURLINGTON, Vermont (CNN) -- Amanda Baggs, a 26-year-old woman with autism, became a bit of an Internet sensation after she posted videos she made about how someone with autism experiences reality.

Amanda, who has been featured on "Anderson Cooper 360" and in a story on, graciously offered to take questions from the audience.

Below you will find her answers to a selection of the approximately 1,000 e-mails we received. (Watch part two of Amanda's video, 'In My Language' Video)

Q: I watched you on TV last night and you are amazing. I teach students with autism. I am working with a third grader and a fourth grader right now. What is the best way to teach someone with autism? It seems that my students have a hard time focusing on one thing. What can I do to help them learn in the classroom? How did you learn best in elementary school?
Lori Blaire, Elizabethtown, Kentucky

AMANDA BAGGS: I don't have a lot of good advice about schools, because even when I could pass tests and stuff I did not learn well in school. I learned from continuing exposure to a lot of experiences and books, outside of the classroom. School taught me more about sociology than it did about the classroom subjects. I'm not every autistic person, but I don't learn well, not in a retainable way, when you try to hammer things into me in a conscious symbolic way.

The best way I learn is to absorb the information without necessarily knowing it's being absorbed, and then have the information triggered later by something else. Nothing else has been reliable, things I learn by abstract thinking fade away when my mind puts the abstractions away, and must be re-learned over and over. Things I learn in the deeper but slower and harder to control way stick better, but can't be pulled out on demand, only in response to a situation.

Q: There are three persons with autism in my family. How do you think an island, populated only by autistic persons such as yourself, would function?
Lawrence Decker, Floyd, Virginia

BAGGS: I don't know. I don't think I would want to live on an island with people of only one neurological configuration, no matter what it was.

Q: Hi Amanda! I was just wondering, do you show emotions? I have a co-worker who has a little boy with autism. He had an "accident" the other day at school and got embarrassed. His mother said it was the first emotion she had seen other than getting angry. Thanks for your help.
Michelle Scheele, La Cygne, Kansas

BAGGS: I have emotions. Autistic people in general do have emotions. We do not always show them in the typical way, but that does not mean they are not there. Some autistic people describe their emotions being different than usual, or arising in different situations than usual, but we all have them in one form or another, and many of us have far more of them than most people are aware of.

Q: What do you think it will take for our society to accept autistic people as functional?
Yolanda Welch, Shreveport, Louisiana

BAGGS: I have a poster on my wall that says "Are you one of us? Take this easy test and find out. Either every one of us is valuable, vulnerable, and worthy of human respect and protection... Or none of us is, which makes mankind king cockroach on planet Earth. Pick one." I think it will take a lot more people picking the first option and seriously living by it.

Q: Amanda, my daughter, Taylor, 12 years old, is severely autistic and non-verbal. How old were you when you taught yourself to type and is there a way I can try to teach Taylor to type? She uses a tech-speak device with pictures at school, but I really want to carry on a conversation with her and tell her how much I love her and want to make her life better and easier for her to understand.
Julie Zuelsdorff, Merrill, Wisconsin

BAGGS: I was 9 years old when I started, and it was through a typing tutor program on the computers at school. It had a cat on it, which made me automatically interested. Some people need more physical assistance learning typing than I did (lots of autistic people will never be 10-finger touch-typists but can still type), and some might need assistance developing the literacy skills to write. Others might really need an alternate form of communication altogether. If you read the book "Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone," you can find the stories of several different autistic people with varying degrees of speech and typing skill (but all of whom type independently), who learned to type in different ways.

Q: Amanda, would you please describe some of the body cues that autistic people use to communicate to one another? Thank you for sharing your story.
Lois Tucker, Kansas City, Missouri

BAGGS: It's hard to describe them, the same way it might be hard for a non-autistic person to explain exactly what cues in another person lead them to believe that person is snobby. I've never made an analytical study of our responses and communication methods, it's something that just comes naturally to me the way non-autistic nonverbal communication seems to come to non-autistic people. I wish I had a clearer answer than that, and I would find it interesting if someone did figure out a way to describe some of the common autistic communication styles in words.

It's the way that just before I walked down the hall with Dr. Gupta, and I was drumming my fingers on the shelf in Laura's apartment for stability, Laura knew to drum her fingers on the other side of the shelf. We continued that until I was laughing and flapping and she was grinning. But that's just one tiny example, and I'm not sure I can translate what was conveyed in that.

How do non-autistic people translate into words what happens when you're upset and your friend holds your hand?

Q: I was wondering how you feel when you hit yourself in the head. Does it hurt or give you some sensory feedback that feels good to you? When do you find yourself doing this the most? Is it because of sensory overload or what? We are very appreciative of any feedback you can give in regards to any SIB (self-injurious behaviors) that occur as we work with a large population that exhibits these SIB's, no matter what their functioning levels are.
Elizabeth Cruise, Lantana, Florida

BAGGS: It often doesn't hurt, sometimes it does. It's something I did on purpose as a child but became an automatic habitual reaction to stress when I got older. I don't do it nearly as often or as badly as I used to. During the interview I did it because I was stressed out and the keyboard was mispronouncing words. It's usually a reaction to stress or overload, or else something I'm compulsive about that has just gone wrong (and often a combination of the three).

Q: I have two questions. (1) I have been told that those with autism do not show affection to others. Is this true? (2) If your mind comprehends everything around you, then is it your body that will not cooperate in response? Thank you so much for allowing me to ask these questions and to dispel misconceptions about autism.
Angie Wettstain, Owensboro, Kentucky

BAGGS: Autistic people do show affection to others. We do not always show it in a standard way, or at the expected times, but most of us do show it. I believe this has been studied at some point, Morton Gernsbacher would know about that research.

Comprehension works differently for me than it does for most people. I take in all the information, but it takes a conscious effort to take it in in the way that non-autistic people consider understanding. It takes work to understand what people are saying, otherwise they sound kind of like running water. I comprehend more reliably by noticing patterns of sensation than I do by engaging more traditional symbolic thought. My body does in fact respond to what is around me, but it's not always the specific responses that others seem to expect. For instance when Chris came in, my turning away and looking out the window was in fact a direct reaction to her presence, and not something I would have necessarily been doing if she hadn't come in, but she interpreted it as almost a non-reaction because I did not react in the same way a non-autistic person might. In fact one of the things that strikes me every time I see an autistic person is how much awareness they are indicating by reacting to various things around them, and how oblivious most other people seem to that awareness. I also have trouble with planning deliberate movements, but that's a whole other topic.

Q: You mentioned that it is beneficial for people with autism to be in contact with other autistic people. Can you share your reasoning for this and how it is helpful to you? You are an inspiration, no doubt you will soon come to realize just how many lives you have touched with your story.
Marion Belanger, Chatham, Ontario

BAGGS: Autistic and non-autistic people perceive different kinds and amounts of information about the world around us, and we respond in different ways to the information we do perceive. Much of the information perceived by autistic people is not perceived by non-autistic people at all, and many of our responses to our environment are incomprehensible to non-autistic people for that reason.

Being exposed to a wide variety of autistic people -- and I emphasize wide variety because we're not all alike, and some of us "click" with each other and others don't -- is important because then we are around people perceiving closer to the same things as we are. We may pick up on things about each other, including each other's body language and what each other are responding to, that are invisible to non-autistic people. Not because we have any amazing superpowers, but for the same reason that non-autistic people have at least a basic instinctual understanding of each other's body language and responses.

Donna Williams, an autistic woman, once said that normal is being in the company of those like yourself. Being around other autistic people, particularly the ones you "click" with, can feel like being normal. I feel totally normal when I am talking to my friend Laura or many of my other autistic friends. I always find it amazing how we communicate so well among ourselves yet our conversations with non-autistic people are fraught with extremes of misinterpretation in both directions.

I don't want to imply that there is only one kind of autistic communication.

There are autistic people I communicate easily with, and autistic people whose communication is totally alien and overloading to me even if they technically speak the same language. Which is why being exposed to a variety of autistic people is so crucial.

So we can learn things from each other, and it also can give us the experience of being understood, of communicating with more ease than we normally do, and so forth. Imagine being the only non-autistic person you knew, and you can see why you might seek out other non-autistic people for all kinds of reasons.

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Amanda Baggs, who has autism, says thinking in words takes a great deal of energy.


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