SURREY — Walking on stage and into the iconic red TEDx circle was a milestone of sorts for Alexander Magnussen.
The 28-year-old Surrey resident has autism and is living his dream of being a public speaker.
It is no small feat.
Ten years ago, he struggled to get through a single day without hitting himself or anyone else. In fact, he was completely non-verbal for periods throughout his life.
Yet there he was, giving a TEDx talk in Langley this past January, aiming to change people’s understanding of the neurodevelopment disorder that is said to affect one in 94 Canadian children.
“It was very, very educated, highly respected people and it was a sell-out crowd and I was just one of eight speakers. It was amazing,” said Magnussen, who is on the board of Surrey’s Semiahmoo House and chair of the Self Advocates of Semiahmoo.
“Most people with autism can’t express themselves because that is a lot of what autism is – the lack of communication verbally,” he said.
“I know that my entire life I’ve had the hardest time expressing myself. It wasn’t until I was 25 I was able to do anything like this.”
STORY CONTINUES BELOW
Magussen’s foray into public speaking started about two years ago when he accidentally stumbled upon his passion for it during a workshop in Burnaby.
He’s since given talks for school districts around the region, including Richmond, Delta and Surrey.
One appearance at the Bell Centre for Performing Arts drew a crowd of 700 education assistants and he spoke to another large crowd of student teachers at Clayton Heights Secondary last month. He’s also given talks at SFU for future student teachers and is back at the university this week for two more.
His message is simple: Autism should be “celebrated,” not feared.
“I’ve been so fortunate with this gift of being able to communicate not only what I want but to be able to have a stage presence, to be funny, to capture an audience,” he said.
And stage presence, he has.
Magnussen appeared to speak to the crowd with ease during his witty 15-minute talk (Bridging the Gap TEDxLangleyED), sharing his school year struggles.
Elementary school was the worst, Magnussen said.
“Think for a second what it would be like to go to school five days a week and have to touch a hot burner. A very, very hot burner. That is what it’s like for me touching paper.”
Then there was his energy.
“I was the kid that did not ever stop moving,” said Magnussen. “I was the kid on the tables. I was walking around in circles, running around in circles. I was the best at playing tag,” he joked.
He recalled being bullied and ignored much of the time. Teachers usually misunderstood him.
That carried over to high school. He didn’t learn much and spent much of his time in the office. In fact, he had his own chair, he told the crowd, laughing.
Then, in Grade 11, he had a one-on-one education assistant for the first time, and she took the time to learn his strengths. It made all the difference in the world.
She discovered his love for physical activity and used that to hone in on his strengths as a student. He became a provincial wrestling champion.
He had simple but meaningful advice for those working or interacting with someone with autism: “Hone in onto that one skill and you can teach them in a very broad way… through their autism obsession, as we call it.”
And though it might seem like it’s easy for Magnussen up on stage, don’t be fooled. He says it’s quite the opposite.
He mentally prepares for days in advance of a speech. He watches Shrek the Musical repeatedly, avoids “triggers,” and does everything he can to stay calm.
The truth, said Magnussen, is he’ll never stop fighting the “prickly parts” of his autism.
But he says he feels driven to continue on this path, to share with the world what autism truly feels like.
He knows that like he was, many with autism have been told over and over that they won’t amount to anything.
“A lot of professionals say, “No, your kid can’t do that. Your kid will never be able to talk. Your kid will never be able to communicate in any way. Your kid is destined for nothing.’ People have done that my whole life,” Magnussen remarked.
Don’t overlooks kids who look like they don’t know anything, he said, because “nine times out of 10, they know exactly what you’re saying and they know exactly how judgmental people are. They notice. I noticed my entire life, I just couldn’t say it.
“So go for it,” he urged others with autism.
While the TEDx talk was something to check off his bucket list, he’s not slowing down.
He’s already booked events for 2017 and hopes to soon land his first international talk.
“No one knew Einstein could do anything, no one knew I could do anything, no one knew Temple Grandon could do anything,” said Magnussen.
“And look at the three of us. Now I do speeches for a living.”
Magnussen smirked as he said, “If I didn’t have autism, I’d have a lot less to say.”