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  • Four years ago I was speaking with a girl named Sarah.

  • Sarah said to me, "Chris, I have Asperger syndrome.

  • I guess having Asperger's means there are things I can't do."

  • I believe we need to rethink the autism spectrum.

  • I educate children on their rights

  • and that says we work with children, their teachers and parents.

  • I've delivered workshops in about 140 schools.

  • I say how autism is a spectrum of behaviors.

  • On one hand,

  • it can cause children to experience social difficulties, anxiety,

  • obsessive traits and disruptive habits.

  • But on the other hand, it provides children

  • with incredible gifts in memory, focus, detail, and visual perception.

  • No two children experience this spectrum in the same way.

  • I met children who might be non-verbal,

  • children who were genius innovators and in a galaxy all on their own,

  • or children like Sarah, who have a mild form of autism,

  • commonly referred to as Asperger syndrome.

  • So when Sarah says to me,

  • "Having Asperger's means there are things I can't do."

  • I thought, hang on.

  • We don't have this label for children to say "I can't".

  • We have it for children to say "I can".

  • What lead to that rethink

  • was an earlier meeting I had with a mom named Lisa.

  • Lisa had been talking to me about her disruptive child.

  • Imagine if,

  • simply because your child doesn't know how to socialize with other children,

  • the world outcasts your son or daughter as "the weird one".

  • People start to whisper about you as a parent.

  • You're called the bad parent.

  • People start to ban you from children's play-dates

  • because your child is just too hard work.

  • Enough eyebrows get raised about your child

  • that you're referred to child psychiatrists,

  • where your child is placed in the fishbowl for seven months

  • as all the experts stare at the strange ways that he or she moves.

  • That was Lisa's life.

  • She told me how the experts called her up and invited her to a meeting,

  • where they sat her down, as said this,

  • "Lisa, we're sorry to say

  • that everything that you find fascinating about your child

  • is actually a problem.

  • Everything that you thought you were doing right about your parenting,

  • you're actually doing wrong.

  • Your child has high-functioning autism.

  • That means your child can function,

  • but there's lot of things your child can't do.

  • Your child will be withdrawn, socially inept,

  • obsessive, and have anxiety.

  • It's highly likely that your child will get worse,

  • so we recommend that you involve this service in your life constantly."

  • I believe we need a rethink,

  • because Lisa is my mother.

  • And I am that child on the autism spectrum.

  • I am living and breathing her rethink.

  • What my mom did for me when I was growing up

  • was she wielded this quiet magic around me.

  • She worked in a background to set up a network of people,

  • of just family and friends that always helped me say

  • "I can" when I found myself facing an insurmountable challenge.

  • They were the people

  • that always worked on my gifts and helped me control my difficulties.

  • She used my label "high-functioning autism"

  • to alert my primary and secondary teachers

  • of a type of learning environment that would most enable me.

  • And with me,

  • every film she made me watch, every book she made me read,

  • had this "I can" enforced to it.

  • My childhood was full of stories of children that have overcome adversity.

  • This was no dream for mom. I certainly was no picnic.

  • I asked her recently just how bad did this get.

  • That's a very dangerous question to ask your mom.

  • (Laughter)

  • She said, "Well, Chris, there was your finger-painting."

  • And I thought, what was so different about my finger-painting?

  • And she said, "Oh, Chris. You did finger painting with your own feces.

  • (Gasps)

  • And I thought, "Whoa." I had that reaction.

  • I was like, "How did you survive me?!"

  • Because the thing she never let me do was she never let me opt out of things.

  • I never wanted to be social as a child,

  • and she just refused to let me use autism as an excuse.

  • I would pay down on her by throwing these tantrums,

  • and it weren't just typical child tantrums,

  • it would involve the whole household.

  • One of them was so bad

  • that simply to avoid throwing me through the window,

  • she picked up my school bag, and threw it across my bedroom,

  • and it managed to go through my bedroom wall.

  • And I shut up after that one.

  • (Laughter)

  • When my family reached their exhaustion threshold,

  • I would be sent to the refuge of my grandparents.

  • And my grandparents had this wonderful impact on me.

  • My grandmother researched exercises that would help me with my anxiety,

  • and I still use those exercises today.

  • My grandfather knew

  • that I would have a panic attack at the thought of playing social sports

  • like football and cricket with other children,

  • and so he worked on my motor skills.

  • He taught me sports in private

  • and even though he was permanently in a wheelchair,

  • he used his mind and his humor

  • to enable me to feel confident in my own skin.

  • At school, it would've been safe to call me "nine going on ninety".

  • My brother, Steven, read Aladdin, and I read encyclopedias.

  • I had this fascination with plotting the different royal families of Europe.

  • I managed to do it from the 14th to 19th century.

  • (Laughter)

  • I had distilled it down

  • into this incredibly visual and detailed chart.

  • When my grade 2 teacher, Miss Tey, set an assignment,

  • I matched this chart up to her

  • because I just felt I have found a new way of seeing the last millennium.

  • No wonder we had so many revolutions and conflicts;

  • these families are way too connected, small community completely out of touch.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • When I took it up to Miss Tey she said,

  • "Oh goodness, Chris, doesn't this chart look interesting?

  • But darling, our assignment is on winter."

  • (Laughter)

  • "Would you mind drawing what winter looks like?"

  • And I thought,

  • I've just done a PhD on the whole last millennium,

  • and you want me to draw clouds and rain?

  • (Laughter)

  • That happened a lot to me at nine.

  • I would also tell stories about family trees that were broken.

  • When I was ten years old,

  • and I was watching a midday movie at my grandparents house,

  • the film "Gone With the Wind" came on,

  • and I couldn't cope with the fact

  • that the daughter of the two main characters, Bonnie,

  • had died in that horrible horse riding accident.

  • I thought, "What do you mean, the family tree's come to an end?

  • There's no sequel?

  • At ten, I'm going to have to continue that work.

  • And so I actually published a sequel to "Gone With the Wind".

  • I even threw in a sex scene,

  • because that's what my autism in visual perception could do with sex ed.

  • (Laughter)

  • Raising me was also entertaining.

  • I was very lucky at school

  • to have the advantage of making some great loyal friends.

  • At primary school, my friend, Erin could tell

  • that my brain just absorbed every minor detail in class.

  • She would help me to focus on classwork, because I often wouldn't get good marks

  • because I'd trail off into minor things.

  • She helped me focus.

  • When I was a teenager,

  • it was my friend, Tim, that helped me pick up social cues

  • so that I was less vulnerable to bullying.

  • Because, unfortunately, in Australia,

  • 80% of secondary students with Asperger Syndrome

  • are targeted in schoolyard bullying.

  • When school was over, and I lost the safety net of my routine,

  • because people on the spectrum love their routine,

  • my friend, Alana, helped me focus on getting uni right,

  • on dealing with my anxiety,

  • and looking at campaigning, volunteering

  • and children's advocacy as a new focus for me.

  • One of my teachers was an extraordinary woman

  • named Christine Horvath

  • who met me at 13 and could immediately tell

  • that I just had this different mind, that I moved differently,

  • and that I had a way with words and memory and creativity.

  • What she did was she set up platforms for me to tell stories.

  • I moved from the kid that no one really knew how to take

  • to the respected story-teller in the schoolyard.

  • And I've just been following that pathway ever since.

  • When I think about this network that my mom started,

  • I know what she saw, when those experts sat her down.

  • When they said that I couldn't do things,

  • she just chose to say, "But he can."

  • When they said I would struggle,

  • she chose to think of strengths.

  • When they said that this would be ugly,

  • she chose to say that this could also be beautiful.

  • There is another way of putting her rethink.

  • My friend and I agree that men are form Mars, women are from Venus,

  • and autistic people are from Pluto.

  • (Laughter)

  • We go to this next slide.

  • My brother on the left, Steven, the boys' boy; he's definitely from Mars.

  • My sister Marian in the middle, she's from Venus.

  • And the boy on the right, with his socks pulled up

  • (Laughter)

  • with his shirt tucked in,

  • his top buttoned-up, and a combover without one hair out of place,

  • he is from Pluto.

  • (Laughter)

  • I look at it now and I'm like, "I was just ahead of my time."

  • (Laughter)

  • I'm basically dawning the eight year old hipster.

  • (Laughter)

  • I mean, I basically paved the way.

  • But if we actually entertain this thought for a second,

  • Pluto in our Solar System has this fundamentally unique orbit.

  • It moves in a different way.

  • And it is the same for children on the autism spectrum.

  • Our orbit or our mind just moves differently.

  • That doesn't mean there are things we can't do.

  • Hell, we can do most things, we can even throw in a little extra.

  • Our mind can move like lightening on certain subjects.

  • Language, spelling, and words were what did it for me.

  • But our mind, our orbit, can sometimes take longer to adapt

  • in the area of social skills.

  • But it does adapt.

  • I can't tell you how confusing my literal mind found sarcasm as a kid.

  • Let's just say it could take a joke a long way.

  • I realised that when Sarah said to me,

  • "I guess that having Asperger's means that there are things I can't do"

  • that she is in an environment

  • where people stare at her different orbit and point at it as a deficit.

  • Whereas I came from an environment

  • where my brave mother removed my disorder

  • by creating an environment free of this stigma that would inhibit me.

  • Twenty years have passed since I was diagnosed.

  • Experts no longer talk to parents like that,

  • health innovations have come a long way,

  • but in my work I see this stigma holding kids back all the time

  • and it's going to require all of us to do something about it.

  • Because we all are going to work with people on this spectrum.

  • One in 88 children in USA are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

  • And these children can bring extraordinary value to your life.

  • Here is Leonardo da Vinci.

  • Author Michael Gelb has researched da Vinci's life,

  • looked at the way he gathered notes,

  • at his visual perception, his detail and focus,

  • and concluded that this man was far advanced on the autism spectrum.

  • Look at the value he gave us. The Renaissance.

  • The lesson from da Vinci's life

  • is not that every child on the autism spectrum

  • is going to be exactly like him.

  • Because they can't be.

  • You know, it's a very broad spectrum.

  • The lesson is, though,

  • that this man had a network of people around him

  • that worked on his gifts and helped him control his difficulties.

  • That network, his "I can" network,

  • started when his father, Piero, took his son's paintings

  • to a painter friend named Verrocchio and said, "Look at what my son is doing!"

  • And Verrocchio looked at these paintings