SURREY — If you ask Alexander Magnussen what his superpower is, he’ll tell you it’s autism.
It’s a message he shares through public speaking and he hopes to change people’s understanding of the neurodevelopment disorder.
Magnussen says that with the right support and early intervention, people who live with autism can better learn to navigate its “prickly parts.”
“I teach people about autism but it’s through the stories of my life,” said the 27-year-old Magnussen, who sits on the board of directors of Surrey’s Semiahmoo House Society.
“My ultimate goal… is to have somebody have a child that just got diagnosed with autism and instead of going, ‘Oh crap, this kid is screwed,’ I would like, ‘Oh, this kid could have some really big potential. This kid could be the next Einstein.’”
Kristen Smith, who currently provides support for Magnussen at Semiahmoo House, said he has a “unique ability to communicate what it feels like to have autism in a way that is understandable to people who don’t have autism.”
As a former EA, Smith said she would have been “enlightened” by his perspective.
She’s helping him expand his career as a public speaker, which he hopes to do full time.
Magnussen’s passion for public speaking began at a workshop in Burnaby about a year ago.
“I just shared my opinions and they all said, ‘Wow. You can really speak.”
During his presentations – which he’s given twice at SFU for student teachers, and an Inclusion BC conference – he talks about things like school, relationships and moving out.
He’s even applied for a TedX Talk and is reaching out to school districts.
Magnussen’s story began in Romania, where he lived in an orphanage. He came to Ucluelet, B.C. at two-and-a-half and said elementary school was tough.
“I just couldn’t sit still at all.”
He said there was a lack of understanding of autism in those days. “It was no, you’re a pain-in-the-ass child.”
By about age four, he was diagnosed.
“My lack of social skills is laughable now.” He didn’t make eye contact or speak much and was quite aggressive, he said.
“With autism, it’s hard to communicate your feelings, it’s hard to feel your feelings because you feel everything…in 2013 I almost went blind because I was relentlessly hitting myself for days and days.”
With great support systems, he’s come a long way.
“But it wasn’t like it was some magical fix,” he said. “As good as I am, in a week something traumatic could happen and I could go back to being nonverbal and have autism touching me constantly.”
Magnussen said people should try to understand if a person with autism acts in an unsociable way.
He gave the example of his reaction to a close childhood friend getting her hair cut.
“It was shoulder length and it went up to her ears,” he said of her hair. “I literally ignored her… I would shut my door in front of her as she was coming in, or she would walk in and I’d tell her to get out.
“Now people can get haircuts and I’m OK, but if it’s a drastic one it takes me a bit… It never goes away.”
If Magnussen could have one wish, it would be to act as a “bridge” to connect the world of autism to the world outside of autism through his speeches and one-on-one help he offers to families and care workers.
“Autism can touch people in the greatest, greatest ways. Autism has helped me be who I am in the great ways that I have it. I like to say I have all of the types of autism because I was the person who was in the group homes hitting themselves and everyone was afraid of…. And I’m also this guy who can stand up in front of thousands of people and speak about it. And all the way in between.”
Follow him on Twitter @alexmagnussen1.