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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

'Finding Amanda'

Aired April 2, 2008 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes you inside in the CNN Special, Finding Amanda.
We begin, though, with the breaking news about your safety in the air, on planes, and the risk the FAA and at least one airline allegedly hid from you. The bombshell accusations come from two FAA inspectors. Both are testifying before Congress tomorrow.

But tonight for the first time, right here, they will tell you what they know. They claim government supervisors ignored their findings that Southwest Airlines was flying unsafe planes.

And there's more. One FAA inspector says Southwest then began to pressure the agency to have him removed. In all, four major airlines, Southwest, American, Delta, and United, are being investigated by the FAA.

This is breaking news. It's also an exclusive.

Drew Griffin is with the CNN Special Investigations Unit. He broke the story tonight. He's "Keeping Them Honest" from Washington -- Drew.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, these are FAA inspectors, the whistle-blowers who have ignited this wave of grounded planes and inspections across the country of late. The FAA today even announcing major changes in its inspection procedures all based on what these inspectors say was happening at Southwest Airlines.

That they say that the FAA have been warned for years Southwest was having problems in its inspection procedures and that FAA supervisor was allowing the airline to postpone inspections, and allow the airline to fly planes that should have been grounded.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

BOBBY BOUTRIS, FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION SAFETY INSPECTOR: On March 15, when Southwest Airlines found out they had 47 aircraft out of compliance, when they see that safety issue, why didn't they ground them?

It is said that an FAA inspector has to become a whistle-blower in order to do his job. And the job is that we were hired by the taxpayers to ensure that the airlines provide safe transportation for the flying public. It shouldn't have to come to this. DOUGLAS PETERS, FAA SAFETY INSPECTOR: I think that's why we're here today. Bobby and I were not happy with the state of Southwest Airlines' maintenance program. We weren't happy, and we saw that the airline was at risk, due to the lax oversight.

And because of this, we just weren't willing to accept anything less than sweeping change.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

GRIFFIN: Anderson, Southwest has apologized about this. They're facing a huge fine, $10 million fine, but members of congress are very concerned about the FAA's role in the Southwest debacle. And the committee wants to find out if this is happening at other airlines as well. That's the focus of tomorrow's hearing -- Anderson.

COOPER: And the chairman of where -- from Southwest is going to be testifying as well?

GRIFFIN: Yes, the CEO and the chairman from Southwest are going to be there. We asked them to comment on what these two inspectors said tonight. They're going to withhold comment in respect to the committee tomorrow morning. They say they will answer any and all questions that are coming to them from the committee. Afterwards they'll talk to us.

COOPER: And essentially the allegations from these two inspectors boil down to that the FAA had too cozy a relationship with, in this case, Southwest?

GRIFFIN: Absolutely. In particular, one supervisor at the FAA, cozy with a supervisor at Southwest and the two of them together apparently allowing this slip-up to happen on dozens and dozens of Southwest jets, Anderson.

Remember, even after Southwest voluntarily disclosed that these planes should have been grounded, the airline kept flying them. That was remarkable -- the big mistake that led to the huge fine.

COOPER: All right, more on this tomorrow. Drew, thanks very much for the reporting and breaking that story.

More on this story throughout the day tomorrow on CNN.

Now, Dr. Sanjay Gupta in a "360" special, "Finding Amanda."

COOPER: We say this rarely, tonight you'll hear things that you'll be thinking about this report for some time to come. It is about a woman named Amanda and autism. Those who are afflicted have been called many things, unresponsive, unfeeling even unaware. But as you will learn tonight, that could not be further from the truth.

And chances are you or someone you know is affected by this disorder, an estimated 600,000 Americans live with autism. And the numbers are remarkable but that number's bound the rise. The Centers for Disease Control finds that at least one child out of every 150 now have some form of autism.

While there's really no cure, once you meet Amanda Baggs, you'll see there is much hope. She lives in a small town of Vermont, but thanks to the Internet she's known around the world.

Here's our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, on this extraordinary journey, "Finding Amanda."

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: This is Amanda Baggs, rocking back and forth. She does not make eye contact; her movements erratic, her behavior eccentric. She cannot speak, and for most of us, this is precisely what we expect when we see a person with autism. But Amanda and her friends will absolutely change your expectations.

Would you define yourself as an autistic person, Amanda?

AMANDA BAGGS: That's the word for people whose brains look like mine last I checked.

GUPTA: As you'll see, Amanda has a lot to say. Her brilliance is laced with a wry sense of humor. We first came across Amanda on YouTube, her appearance there so startling, I wanted to meet her. I had so many questions.

BAGGS: The way I naturally think and respond to things, looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all.

It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication.

GUPTA: Amanda calls herself bilingual. For other autistic people, she has movements and gestures to communicate, but for the rest of us, she made this video to teach us how it works. She calls us neurotypical, meaning we do not have autism. She communicates with a keyboard and her computer, and for visitors, a voice synthesizer.

Amanda's story is atypical of anyone living with autism. She could speak when she was younger, she even spent a year at college at age 14, but today she lives alone in this apartment.

This is where Amanda made the video. She shot it, edited it, and posted it on the Internet, all completely on her own. Surprised? After all, some medical professionals have labeled her a low- functioning autistic.

Part of the reason people watched it was because they were so stunned that a person who carries this label of autism, who doesn't speak, could put together such an astonishing video.

BAGGS: I have put together several videos and not a lot of people watched it.

GUPTA: But this time she got through.

Amanda, when you hear about people with autism that are institutionalized, that no one has really ever made a concerted effort to try and reach out, to communicate with them in some way, what do you say to those people?

BAGGS: Everyone interacts with their society. If someone is shut off from interacting with society then someone is shutting it off because it sure doesn't seem to me that I've ever seen someone who doesn't interact with society.

GUPTA: In this hour, Amanda will be our guide to her world, with all its wonder and all of its frustration. When Amanda hit herself, I was startled, but not surprised. It's a familiar autistic behavior.

She must be so frustrated, such a bright woman, so trapped, and yet I wondered how is it that Amanda has been able to reveal so much about herself and her autism. She relies on the Internet. It's her connection to other autistics. There she can talk, think and feel on her own terms.

I meet an autistic who has written and published part of a book.

Was it difficult for you to learn how to read?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My first language was gestures.

GUPTA: In so many ways Amanda is an inspiration to him. Amanda is our guide on a startling journey across the continent and into a world we've made so little effort to understand.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

GUPTA: We caught up with Amanda Baggs on her way to a conference of people with autism. She would be a featured speaker. If you're surprised there is such a convention or that she would be a speaker, it's because, she says, you are neurotypical, you are not autistic.

What does it mean to be autistic, do you think? I don't mean philosophically, but for you everyday, what does that mean?

BAGGS: It means I perceive things differently than most people and I respond to things differently than most people and some things are easier than usual and some are harder than usual.

GUPTA: Amanda doesn't travel much. She's most comfortable spending her days in this apartment with her dog Billy Jean and her cat Fay. Yet thanks to the Internet, she is now everywhere.

She shot, edited and posted this video on YouTube. It's called "In My Language," and it's been viewed more than 300,000 times. This, from a 27-year-old who the medical community would label low-functioning autistic. Then again, Amanda is not a big fan of what she calls bleak medicalized definitions.

For those who may be ready to dismiss her and the world of autism as closed off or somehow flat, Baggs is ready with a retort.

BAGGS: I think everyone lives in the same world and the idea that autistic people live in our world is kind of backwards.

GUPTA: In fact, Amanda interacts with everything around her.

What about this? This is interesting. You're actually -- you can read obviously, but you're putting your face in the book. Why? What does that mean?

BAGGS: I like the smell and the texture of that particular paper. That book has very rough paper.

GUPTA: So you just enjoy it. You just enjoy actually smelling that and feeling it?

BAGGS: Yes.

GUPTA: Sights, smells, touch and taste, colors and patterns are all part of how Amanda experiences her surroundings.

BAGGS: But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols. For people to interpret it is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment.

GUPTA: What are we missing here? Why has autism been something that people have not really been able to get their arms around in terms of being able to communicate, being able to understand it fully?

BAGGS: First there is a communication gap that goes two ways. It's not a one-way street and so part of the problem is that the people are thinking if they don't understand us, it's because we're broken. And if we don't understand them, it's because we're broken. Either way it comes back to us being broken.

GUPTA: If you wanted to talk to me, could you do that?

BAGGS: I could make speech sounds. At this point, I could not make them mean anything I was thinking.

GUPTA: Does that frustrate you?

BAGGS: Not really.

GUPTA: If someone said today that --

BAGGS: I type very fast.

GUPTA: Yes, you do. Yes, she types very fast. When she's feeling good and not distracted, Amanda types about 120 words a minute, but her ability fluctuates. Some days she can only type one finger at a time and occasionally she cannot type at all.

On rare days, Amanda can become catatonic; distractions, interferences, sensory overloads, all present huge obstacles for Amanda.

We went with her to see her dentist. She uses a wheelchair, not because she can't walk, she can, but she says the very act of balancing herself proves too distracting. And you'll notice she's focused on her keyboard.

In the dentist chair, the buzz and flicker of the lights are overwhelming for her. They can trigger migraines, so Amanda soothes herself. She fiddles with her blocks. They are familiar and calming.

Amanda lives alone, but she has help. Social workers and visiting nurses assist with everything from meals to taking a shower. They may sure she's taking her medicine; even that she's drinking enough water. Amanda's caseworker, Jim Hessler (ph), says everyone he's worked with who had autism has been different, with different challenges and abilities. And he says even Amanda's abilities change from one day to the next.

JIM HESSLER, AMANDA'S CASEWORKER: It can be somewhat of a moving target, but on a day-to-day basis, the basics are helping with medications. There are days where remembering to pay bills is a big issue, so we assist with some of the budgeting tasks, but it's a collaborative effort.

GUPTA: Sometimes little things can be big issues.

During my visit, Amanda hit herself after a typo on her computer. Her behavior was startling, but not surprising. It's a familiar autistic behavior. Most of the time, Amanda is able to reveal quite a lot about herself simply by typing about her thoughts.

Would you say that people would be surprised to find out how well you can communicate, being a person with autism?

BAGGS: Generally if they see me first before they see me talk they are surprised, and sometimes disbelieving. Then sometimes if they first see me, right, they think that I'm not autistic.

GUPTA: Amanda is not expressive in the way most of us would describe the word, with gestures and body language, but when she writes, she can express humor, sarcasm, anger and fear.

One thing I've noticed is that you haven't looked at me the entire time we've talked; you don't know my body language. You haven't looked at me. Wouldn't that be important to do?

BAGGS: I can hear you.

GUPTA: What about that body language? Isn't that important?

BAGGS: It can be, but when it can be seen out of the corner of the eye when necessary. If I'm listening to you, I'm not going to. One could be also processing a zillion other things.

GUPTA: If Amanda were to take an intelligence test, she probably would do poorly. Most of them require some sort of oral communication. It's just this sort of judgment that angers her.

She dedicated her much-viewed YouTube video "In My Language" in part to all other people who are considered non-persons or non- thinking. Amanda says everyone is capable of communicating.

I wonder how many other people who don't have a system like this, or don't have some way of communicating are just never reached. It sounds tragic to me, to feel like --

BAGGS: It is. I have never met a person who had no communication. I have met a lot of people who have no means of currently using English in a way that is understood.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

GUPTA: Amanda is making her way to the conference for people with autism. It's a gathering she looks forward to, though it's tremendously stressful. She feels a lot of pressure, as unofficial spokesperson for people with autism. She's worried about what could happen when she gets there.

As for how Amanda got to this place, well, she always had a cat, one was never far away. People, though, were a different story. Like most with autism, her difficulties communicating with others began early, long before her diagnosis at age 14.

BAGGS: I remember just being angry that I was different before I knew I was specifically autistic. I used to come home from school every day and just start screaming my head off and crying because I was really mad that I had to be not every kind of person got the kind of experiences I got at school

GUPTA: Amanda's parents noticed oddities. She was sensitive to sound. She walked without moving her arms. Her report cards labeled her disruptive in class, but she always had been an advanced reader, a gifted student.

So she traveled across the country at the age of 14, to attend a college for gifted youth. Amanda says she tried hard to fit in, even trying drugs like LSD, but soon it became too much. She began to lose her abilities.

BAGGS: It was not a sudden thing. It was like I would have more and more periods where I could not talk. GUPTA: It wasn't until Amanda was in her lane teens that she began using her computer as her everyday means of communicating. Prior to that, she says she often didn't speak, repeated what someone had said, or just screamed.

In one of her videos, she shows ankle restraints on her legs, the kind she says were used on her when she was younger and institutionalized.

Now she's a powerful online advocate for those with autism. It's a life that no doubt would have surprised the young Amanda.

In another online posting, Amanda describes herself as a child who could not envision my place in society as an adult. Amanda has found her place, and most days, she interacts with others, and not just on the Internet.

Her friend Laura, who is also autistic lives just down the hall.

Experts say Amanda's autism is most likely the exception rather than the rule. We've received thousands of comments regarding her story, and some people even question her diagnosis of autism.

Amanda has had other psychiatric labels in the past -- schizophrenia, PTSD, and depression to name a few. As for autism, we've spoken to doctors, examined her medical and social security records. However atypical she may be, she is autistic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She had to have somewhere to stay, so this is her couch.

GUPTA: So could it be possible that her ability to communicate using a keyboard is a beacon for the estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of people with autism unable to use oral language. Even the experts don't have an answer.

MORTON ANN GERNSBACHER, PSYCHOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN: We really don't know how unique or how common Amanda is among autistic individuals. If we provide a common means of communication, typing as Amanda does, or her interaction with the world and stimuli, how many individuals would show the profile or the pattern that Amanda does?

GUPTA: On the Internet, Amanda is high-profile these days. A little later, I'll tell you how much of a target she's become, an uncomfortable spot for her. One constant in Amanda's life is the comfort she finds in pets, just as she did when she was a child.

You find it easier to relate to animals?

BAGGS: I slept with a cat when I was baby. I never was away from cats. I didn't really get to know dogs until I was older.

GUPTA: What about the body language and communication?

BAGGS: Well, dogs are also a bit more in your face. And dogs also expect more body language. More of the standard kind like with her I learned to wag my tail a bit.

GUPTA: You wag your tail, she wags her tail.

Amanda also wags her arm to communicate with Billy Jean. She posted the doggy happy dance online, and urged others to post their own pets doing a happy dance. She even posted her own happy dance on YouTube.

Amanda says she's always felt pressure to accommodate people. She says she still hears the school bullies, abusive friends, relatives, teachers, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists who she writes online postings.

Are you happy right now, Amanda? Are you as happy as you want to be, as you can be?

BAGGS: I'm fairly happy in general not counting standard changes in things like lots of people and cameras.

GUPTA: Happy, now that she's able to define herself for others. A far cry from her childhood, but there are still plenty of frustrations, as we'll find out.

BAGGS: I gave a talk at a conference and by the end of the talk I went outside and chased shadows around for a while. I was suddenly far less able to understand things because at that point it's either moving or understanding but not both.

Also, a star on YouTube, and a target. And Amanda's advice for parents of children with autism.

So what is the message then for the parents, for the people who are providers? Try harder?

(END VIDEO TAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

GUPTA: Amanda Baggs' video "In My Language" plays all around the world. Fans have even translated her words into Spanish and Italian.

What inspired you to make that film?

BAGGS: Non-autistic people were claiming my movements were meaningless. The autistic people were saying, "Oh no, you're moving in response to the sounds. It's totally obvious."

I taste things, I feel things.

GUPTA: Posted close to a year ago, her video is a topic of hot debate on the Internet.

BAGGS: I just had a lot of responses both positive and negative. And the idea that this many people see me and seeing me often through their preconceptions of who I am wasn't what my life was like. And that kind of thing was hard to handle.

GUPTA: Some praise Amanda for bringing more attention to autism and her different form of communication. But skeptics doubt her message. Some even question whether she is really low-functioning autistic, but as proof she's genuine, Amanda posted her medical documents on her Web site.

As it happens, the Internet has brought together many people with autism.

BAGGS: The autistic community on the Internet helped me a lot at this time in my life. I knew that I would have to move out on my own.

GUPTA: Amanda may seem like an exception. A visible and communicative autistic adult living alone without a legal guardian, but as the number of people diagnosed with autism grows, experts say you'll hear from more like her.

GERNSBACHER: The Internet would be for autism what sign language has been for the deaf.

GUPTA: To date, Amanda has posted about 30 videos on the Internet, each intended to correct the stereotype of the autistic as an emotional and physical non-person.

BAGGS: This is my natural response to the kind of happiness that makes you want to dance all over the place. I'm sure you know the feeling.

GUPTA: Amanda's videos show her everyday activities, like playing the flute or simply walking along a sidewalk.

BAGGS: Don't be fooled by my outward appearance. There is a lot of complicated planning going on in my head.

GUPTA: She even pokes a little fun of herself, in a video called "How to Boil Water the Easy Way." She finally gets to the kitchen where she repeatedly opens cabinets, stands still, opening the refrigerators, plugs and unplugs appliances and looks in the microwave.

BAGGS: There are lots of cues to doing various things in here. The problem is that very few of them have to do with actually boiling water.

GUPTA: Amanda is also a prolific blogger. She maintains not one, but two Web sites.

DR. ERIC HOLLANDER, AUTISM CENTER OF EXCELLENCE: The big advantage of the Internet for people with autism is it does filter out all of the facial expressions and the body language, so people don't have to spend time try to go disentangle or understand the nonverbal forms of communication. GUPTA: In the online community called Second Life, she's created an animated alter ego, who looks and acts like her. Even in her virtual world, she's typing and rocking back and forth. In Second Life, she can fly to different destinations and attend autism meetings.

HOLLANDER: Some individuals that you think are mentally retarded and have no language, once they're able to communicate through a keyboard, for example, it turns out that they really are very aware of what is going on. They have high level processing and thinking about the world, and they're able to communicate in an expressive fashion.

GUPTA: Being called retarded is not new to Amanda. She tackles the phrase in a video aptly named "About Being Considered Retarded."

She admits her abilities may wax and wane, so on some days she can blog in great detail; other days she can barely type a word.

BAGGS: The structure of my body, especially my face and a few other body parts resembles the body structures that doctors seem to love to link to this thing they call mental retardation. Well, to me all those things are normal.

GUPTA: On the Internet, Amanda can get beyond names and expectations. She can move at her own pace, live life on her own terms.

Coming up, bridging the online world with the real world.

BAGGS: He told me that I was not a real adult, because I had been in a psychiatric system.

The pressure of public speaking. And a special bond with a young boy living with autism.

Did you see Amanda Baggs's video? And what did you think of it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, she hopes for freedom.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

GUPTA: The Internet is like a "get out of jail for free" card for a new world of autistics.

D.J. SAVARESE (PH): Amanda, I am so glad to talk to you.

BAGGS: I am glad to talk to you, too.

GUPTA: This is 15-year-old D.J. Savarese. Like Amanda he's been labeled low functioning by the medical community, or even mentally retarded.

D.J., did you see Amanda's video? And what did you think of it?

SAVARESE: Yes, she hopes for freedom.

GUPTA: Their paths are surprisingly similar. Both say they're bilingual.

Was it difficult for you to learn how to read?

SAVARESE: My first language was gestures.

GUPTA: What do you think?

Like Amanda, D.J. has been in and out of the institutionalized care, often unable to communicate their needs and wishes, sometimes suffering neglect or abuse; all because they couldn't speak. But a communication keyboard has changed both their lives.

SAVARESE: Good to see you, how have you been?

GUPTA: Both are sociable by nature. Each one spends time with friends on the Internet and in person. I chatted online with D.J. and Amanda. D.J. shared his dream of bringing autistic people together.

BAGGS: That sounds like a good idea. What sorts of areas are you thinking of organizing about?

SAVARESE: Defining ourselves.

GUPTA: I asked Amanda how she felt about such a summit.

BAGGS: It sounds like a good idea. It seems like people are always defining who we are, and we are not allowed so much to define who we are.

GUPTA: Defining himself; something D.J. has learned to do over the years. As an infant, he was given up for adoption by his biological parents. He bounced around from foster home to foster home until the age of six. D.J. was adopted by Emily and Ralph. Today they live in Iowa.

An indoor trampoline helps D.J. communicate with his loved ones without words. Ralph chronicled the family's story in a book, "Reasonable People - A Memoir of Autism and Adoption. D.J. wrote the last chapter.

He types using facilitated communication, or FC. With FC, an aide holds one end of the pencil as D.J. holds the other end and types one letter at a time. The theory is that the facilitator's touch helps the person to focus and concentrate, but it's controversial.

Critics call FC a hoax, claiming it's actually the facilitator who manipulates communication, but D.J. has passed several tests, verifying that he's communicating in his own words.

Is it important for you to be able to talk? Is that something that's a goal of yours? SAVARESE: Yes, but not sure I can.

GUPTA: But even without words and speech, just look at him. You'll see D.J. feel his surroundings. D.J. was fascinated by New York City, the sights, the sounds. When I sat down with him and his parents, D.J. had trouble focusing. Like most parents, they became frustrated.

RALPH SAVARESE: Can you hang in there? Can you hang in there or not?

GUPTA: Lights and cameras can be overwhelming for anyone, but D.J. was most fixated by the microphone. He reached for it again and again. Fixation is a common autistic trait. He takes medication for severe anxiety and a heart condition, but like Amanda, he's proud of his autism.

What is autism?

SAVARESE: I guess I don't treat myself as autistic. I treat myself as fresh-thinking. Yes, I look different. I hope fresh ideas get people to ignore my autism.

D.J. tells me that he first realized that he was autistic in kindergarten when he saw that other kids could talk. His parents worked hard to teach him how to read. Today he's a straight A student and aspires to be a scientist.

Is autism something that should be treated?

SAVARESE: Yes, treated with respect.

GUPTA: D.J. has watched Amanda's video "In My Language" countless times. I asked him if he wants to grow up to be like Amanda?

SAVARESE: Yes, I desperately hope to get to live independently, but I fear it.

GUPTA: Freedom, it's a major theme in D.J.'s poetry and Amanda's writing, so during our online chats, I asked them, what does it mean to be free?

SAVARESE: To get to joyfully live the dream.

BAGGS: Or to live things better than we dreamed.

GUPTA: In the meantime, Amanda has almost arrived at the conference for autistic people, but will it all get too overwhelming?

(END VIDEO TAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE) GUPTA: When you're with Amanda, you can't help but think, how much do other people with autism have to say? What have we been missing?

I wonder how many other people who don't have a system like this or don't have some way of communicating are just never reached. It sounds tragic to me to feel like there might be --

BAGGS: It is, because I have never met a person who had no communication.

GUPTA: We watched as Amanda set out on a journey. She'll travel over 2,500 miles from her home in Vermont to Edmonton, Canada. By any measure, it's a long trip, but for Amanda, she says it's one of the toughest things about being autistic.

BAGGS: Having to navigate a world that is on all levels built for the abilities and deficits of people who are not built remotely like me.

GUPTA: After weeks of preparation, Amanda finally departed for the big trip, flanked by her friends, first by road, then by plane. Amanda's invitation to speak at the autism conference is exciting, she tells us, but it all makes her nervous. Speaking in public always comes at a high price for Amanda, physical and emotional fallout is inevitable.

BAGGS: I gave a talk at the conference and by the end of the talk, I went outside and chased shadows around for a while. And somewhere in the process lost bladder control too, and then froze for a while. And then when I could move again, I was suddenly far less able to understand things, because at that point it's either moving or understanding, but not both.

GUPTA: Amanda has learned to recognize her body's limits, but also her intense need to be around other autistics.

BAGGS: There's often a wider communication gap between autistic and non-autistic people.

GUPTA: Amanda recognizes many of the people here. For many of them, Amanda is a shining inspiration.

ESTEE KLAR WOLFOND, AUTISM ACCEPTANCE PROJECT: When we start to see people like Amanda Baggs, you know, who other people might deem low-functioning, because she's using a device and can't talk; then you begin to start breaking down the barriers of those stereotypes.

GUPTA: Make no mistake, this conference is not for doctors or researchers. It's for autistic people. It's organized by the Autism National Committee. This year's title sums it up best, "Autism, Living Life to the Fullest." Their issues are complex, their goals here, though, are simple.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are trying to reduce all sorts of sensory overload. GUPTA: Instead of applause, people are asked to simply stand up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Except for Amanda who's just going to be waving her arm because she's going to be the one person who isn't going to stand.

GUPTA: Microphones are forbidden, because audio feedback can send many people here into a frenzy. Presentations are frequently interrupted by autistic outbursts and people are free to walk around during the panels. The conference food is all gluten-free. Many autistics avoid gluten, because they think it may worsen their symptoms.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Also to be allowed to feel good about ourselves.

GUPTA: People who fall into all categories of autism spectrum disorders have come from all over North America. Amanda traveled here with Larry Bussinet (ph), a 42-year-old painter and subject of a recent documentary. It takes minutes for him to type a mere sentence.

LARRY: Your perception of autistics probably are changing. Hope under all of this external nonsense you can otherwise see accurately that my intelligence in my typing.

GUPTA: Jordan Ackerson (ph), a good-looking, clean-cut young man just graduated from high school in Michigan. During his senior year, he ran for student council. He's just about to start college.

12-year-old Darby and her parents hope to learn a better way to connect. She wears headphones to avoid over-stimulation. It's a rare moment for Amanda to merge her two worlds, the online autistic community and physically being around people who better understand her gestures and her movements.

BAGGS: It's nice to people again that I've known online for a long time.

GUPTA: Amanda keeps her wooden cat with her at all times. She reaches for it and rubs it. It is familiar, it provides comfort as she makes her way through the new setting. Finally the time has come to give her presentation. Her panel is in one of the smaller rooms of the conference.

BAGGS: I have been given a massive number of psychiatric labels both orally and on paper.

GUPTA: She talks about her life in a speech entitled "Having a Voice in Decision-Making, the Issue of Guardianship." But soon the conversation turns from living alone and independently to how people can best be guardians to their autistic children. Amanda begins to get frustrated.

BAGGS: I really don't understand the point of my being here if all I'm going to be told is my situation doesn't apply.

GUPTA: Her frustration builds, her typing more staccato. She grunts to make her point, and finally she's on frustration overload.

BAGGS: Another way to do it instead of defending guardianship by drawing these stupid lines between people you are all about not labeling -- well, you are labeling me.

Amanda wheels out of the room into the bathroom. We can hear her screams of anger through the walls.

The next day, we asked her about what happened.

BAGGS: The last straw was just being continuously seen as an exception to the rule. I just got fed up and realized I had to either get out of there or make a public spectacle of myself, and I decided to get out of there.

GUPTA: Frustration and anger at not being heard; emotions common to all of us. Amanda doesn't dwell too long on the panel itself, but surprisingly she's enchanted by the aftermath.

BAGGS: I got really upset and ran into the bathroom and started screaming. And then a few of my friends came in and started talking to me about what was upsetting me. That's the first time I've ever had that experience, stereotypical female clumping in bathrooms, a phenomenon before now.

GUPTA: Amanda Baggs has a special gift for finding the humor in stereotypes; it somehow makes it easier for all of the rest of us to begin to see what we've been missing all along.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

COOPER: Thanks for joining us for this special hour "Finding Amanda." We're sure it has changed whatever stereotypes you may have had about autism. It certainly changed mine.

For more information about autism, click on cnn.com/health. You'll find more details on Amanda behind the scenes accounts from chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta's team of producers and resources for people living with and affected by autism.

Good night.

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