I’ll never forget something Alexander Magnussen said to me the first time I met him.
Magnussen, whose story is on our front page, has autism and is on the board of Surrey’s Semiahmoo House. He is also chair of the Self Advocates of Semiahmoo and about a year ago, told me of his dreams of a career in public speaking.
It was quite the goal for someone with autism.
“You wear a lot of hats, hey?” I said at the time.
“No,” he replied, looking rather confused.
“I just wear this one,” he said, tugging on the brim of his cap.
He didn’t understand my question. Later, when he was more comfortable, he explained people with autism think very literally.
Without knowing it or even meaning to, he made me understand autism a little better in that moment.
Then, walking up the stairwell of Surrey’s Semiahmoo House, Magnussen did a full spin at each landing.
He didn’t skip a beat. His sentence continued to flow. His pace didn’t slow. It’s something he had to do. That’s his autism, he explained matter-of-factly.
Again, he helped me understand autism a little better.
“You guys are really confusing, I noticed that,” Magnussen told me, with a cheeky smile. “People with autism? We’re predictable.”
Throughout the interview that day, he barely made eye contact. When he did, I could tell it made him uncomfortable. And he admitted as much.
“This is why I feel blessed to be able to communicate,” he said excitedly. “Not many of us can talk about what it feels like.”
Magnussen unknowingly taught me yet another lesson when I watched his recent TEDxLangleyED Talk.
In opening, he asked the audience to imagine 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,” said Al, as he refers to himself. “That is what it’s like for me touching paper.”
He recalled how excruciating it was for him to colour in Kindergarten. He’d cry and scream and no one understood why.
Well, he felt like he was burning.
There he goes again, making me understand.
Throughout his TEDx talk – and throughout both of the interviews I’ve now done with him – Magnussen has a way of making you understand how autism feels.
He seems to do so with ease. He’s charming, he’s energetic, he’s funny and engaging. I challenge you to watch his TEDx talk and not chuckle at the light-hearted way he presents his struggles.
It’s incredible when you consider he was violent for much of his life. He’d hit himself. He’d hit other people. He’d throw things.
In school, he’d stand on tables and chairs or run around in circles. As a result, he spent a lot of time in the office. He was also unable to make much eye contact and at times was completely non-verbal.
Over the course of his life, he’s met many therapists and doctors but says he seldom received help or understanding.
“They’ll say, ‘Your kid will never be able to communicate in any way, your kid is destined for nothing.’ People have done that my whole life.”
Well he sure proved them wrong. His progress is remarkable.
A decade ago, his goal was to get through a full day without hitting someone or himself. Today, he’s teaching hundreds of people about autism – and inspiring those with the disorder.
“Being non-verbal doesn’t mean you have nothing to say,” he stressed.
He’s doing a good job so far. He’s taught me. He’s surely taught many more through his TEDx talk that has had more than 2,000 views.
He’s reached even more through crowds of hundreds of student teachers and education assistants at school district events and even Simon Fraser University. Last year he also spoke at an Inclusion BC conference.
And he’s not slowing down. After he told me about a bit of stage fright before his TEDx talk, I asked if he’d be interested in doing an international TED Talk, if given the opportunity.
“Heck ya!’ he replied.
Keep up the amazing work, Al. You’re giving a voice to people who truly need you to.
I’m rootin’ for ya.
Now staff writer Amy Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.