Gus loves spending time at New York City’s Transit Museum, which has programs for kids with autism. Visit nytransitmuseum.org/access for more information.

"What I Want You to Know About Living With Autism"

Gus, 16, experiences the world in an entirely different way. His important message may change how you view autism.

You’re at the mall and you see a teen freaking out. You think, Whoa! What is going on? That kid is way too old to be throwing a tantrum. Maybe he’s making odd moaning sounds and has his hands over his ears and his eyes closed. Perhaps he’s curled up in a ball on the floor. Or it could be that his hands are flapping a mile a minute. You’re afraid to go near him. You definitely don’t want to say hello.

Well, say hello, because that kid might be me. My name is Gus, and I’m autistic. That means that I have a developmental disorder that causes my brain to be wired in a different way than most teens’ brains are.

That kid you saw at the mall could be autistic too, and the way he was acting may be because of something called sensory overload. This happens when our brains are overstimulated, whether by sounds, smells, or tastes. The fluorescent lights can hurt our eyes, or loud music can vibrate in a weird way, making it feel like a bee is stinging our ears.

It’s also possible that the kid was acting like that not because he was upset but because he was happy. Yes, really! When I go to the supermarket, for example, I put my ears on the shopping cart and zoom around because I like the humming sound that the cart’s wheels make on the linoleum floor. I also hop around when I’m happy. For me, jumping can express how I feel better than speaking can, but everyone’s autism experience is different.

What It Means to Have Autism

About 1 in 68 people in the U.S. are somewhere “on the spectrum.” This means they exhibit a few, some, or many of the challenges autistic people face, such as dealing with sensory overload or getting upset if their daily routine is changed even just a little bit. But what we all have in common is that we have some degree of difficulty communicating and forming relationships.

For one thing, many autistic people can’t “read” other people that well. For you, it’s automatic. You look at a person’s face and have a pretty good idea of how that person is feeling and how you should respond. If you see that someone is sad, for example, you know to try to comfort him or her. I’m only just starting to learn how to do this, and I’m still not great at it. Unless people are crying, I might not even be able to figure out that they are upset.

Also, I always mean what I say. This is called being literal minded, and it means that it’s difficult for me to understand puns, riddles, or figures of speech. The other day, my mom saw a pair of shoes she really liked and said she’d “died and gone to heaven.” I got kind of scared! She had to explain to me that it was just an expression and it didn’t mean she was dead. She just loved the shoes. Well, why couldn’t she say that? It can be really upsetting to me when people talk this way.

An Upside of Autism

Even though it’s easy to misunderstand people, there are some big advantages of having autism. For example, the part of the brain that processes music is often more developed in autistic people, and I can relate! I have always loved music. I can listen to a song on YouTube and play it back for you on the piano—not perfectly, like a robot, but I get it right after a few tries. I can also tell you the name of a huge number of songs if you play just the first few notes.

In fact, I understand the language of music better than spoken language. When I was little, I talked to myself, but I didn’t reply to anybody—ever—and it made my mom very worried. But then she discovered that I would answer if she sang my name instead of saying it. Or rather than asking me to do something, she put it in a tune. It worked!

My Dreams

It’s hard for me to think about the future, but I do have goals, just like you do. First, I want to get a job. Most autistic people are unemployed, but I think we should be working, if we can. We have skills, and the fact that a lot of us like repetition means that in the right job, we might never get bored. I also think I want to get married and have a family—but not until I’m much older! My other dream is to ride on every train in the world. Right now, I don’t even like to leave my hometown of New York City, so it might take awhile before I reach that goal. But someday I’ll do it.

I know I’m very different, but I’m a confident, friendly guy—and other kids with autism are too. The next time you see a teen acting strangely, remember that she just might be autistic and outside her comfort zone. So don’t freeze up. Go and say hello!

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