Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Behind the veil of autism
Despite the friendly invitations and our lively e-mail banter, Amanda would not look at me when I walked in the room. She wore sunglasses and sat in a wheelchair, even though her legs are fine. She could make some noises, but could not speak. Amanda has what doctors call low-functioning autism. If it were not for a device that synthesizes words as she types on a keyboard, we would not have been able to communicate with her at all.
She taught me a lot over the day that I spent with her. She told me that looking into someone's eyes felt threatening, which is why she looked at me through the corner of her eye. Amanda also told me that, like many people with autism, she wanted to interact with the entire world around her. While she could read Homer, she also wanted to rub the papers across her face and smell the ink. Is she saw a flag blowing in the wind, she might start to wave her hand like a flag. She rides in a wheelchair, she says, because balancing herself while walking takes up too much energy for her to also type and communicate. To an outside observer, the behaviors would seem eccentric, even bizarre. Because Amanda was able to explain them, they all of a sudden made sense. In case you were curious, there is no possible way that I was being fooled. Amanda, herself, was communicating with me through this voice-synthesis technology.
It really started me wondering about autism. Amanda is obviously a smart woman who is fully aware of her diagnosis of low-functioning autism, and quite frankly mocks it. She told me that because she doesn't communicate with conventional spoken word, she is written off, discarded and thought of as mentally retarded. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I sat with her in her apartment, I couldn't help but wonder how many more people like Amanda are out there, hidden, but reachable, if we just tried harder.
I am a neurosurgeon and Amanda Baggs opened my eyes about the world of autism. I am eager to hear what you think of her story and if you have stories of your own.
To learn more about Amanda and adult autism, visit CNN.com/Health.
ABOUT THE BLOGGet a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
PREVIOUS POSTS• Just plane scared of flying...
• Imaging the pre-criminal mind
• My mom sets the pace at 81
• Finding the secrets of youth
• Are adoptive parents more attentive than biologica...
• Health awareness days: Mark your calendars again a...
• Handling a friend's diagnosis
• Cheesesteaks... My only weakness!!
• Cupcake controversy
• 3G contraceptives (part 2)