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My name is Sharisa Joy, I’m almost 25 years old, and I am here today to talk to you about autism and to learn what you think about it. I learned at age 13 to use keyboards to communicate and was able to go to regular school starting at age 15. I am now a senior at Denver University majoring in Psychology and due to graduate in November. When I was younger, I had no way to communicate and people thought I was "hopelessly retarded". Before I started typing to speak, I couldn’t express myself or respond in any acceptable way… and to all outward appearances, hopelessly retarded is exactly what I was… but:




People should never be seen or treated as labels. I know the horrible hurt of cold, cruel stares that shout "YOU’RE RETARDED!" louder than any WORDS could say to or about my "special" friends or me. People sometimes look right at us and speak badly about us as if we don’t even exist, let alone understand! But most of us do understand and are awfully hurt by mean words! Why can’t people allow us "non-verbal" people to be people rather than trying to depict and keep us as some kind of non-communicative, unthinking, unfeeling "vegetables?"







It’s good to know people can change their perceptions through contact with new people and ideas. It is, on the other hand, sad that some people go through life with the blinders and earplugs of bigotry firmly in place. It’s even worse when they try to force their beliefs on others; innocent people get irreparably hurt.

Even now, there are times that the way I look and act causes people who don't know my true brainpower to think I’m "retarded." The only answer I see to this "tunnel vision" is to try to teach others how to see past surface behaviors. The benefit of the doubt is the best gift we can give to others... I've even learned to give it to people who pick on me! What I try to take with me everywhere is my one-of-a-kind example of what’s behind what people think they see – if they open their eyes, ears and minds to what is truly possible. Even if someone is "challenged," people are always people first and most of all. We all deserve fair treatment as a right rather than a "gift." People only need be themselves and let themselves know me for me to feel comfortable, safe, and trusting enough to be myself and let myself know them. But it wasn’t always this way because I have AUTISM! That’s my biggest personal wall of all.



While no one is completely sure what autism is or what causes it, there are many ideas. What I can say for sure is that autism is very scary to most people and a puzzle to researchers and even to those of us who have it. It is, in its simplest terms, a mysterious disorder that affects language, thought, mood, feeling, and even movement.



People always ask me how it feels to be a child with autism. I can only tell you how it felt and what it was like for me. As a young child with autism, I created a complete inside world in order to protect myself. I still have pieces of that world. At age two, I was a sad and unresponsive little girl. I stopped talking, chose to be alone, and wouldn’t even look at people. I created imaginary friends to guard and shield me from what I thought was dangerous. They kept me company and made me feel safe by giving me something to focus on rather than what frightened me. I stopped being "Spontaneous Sharisa" and became "Automatic Androida!" After a while, I didn’t even really know I was doing that – it took control of me. I spent more than 11 years with no face, voice, or name to call my own except those that existed in my mind!


I never totally lost myself, however, because my dad helped me hang on to it by letting me hold on to him and knowing what the real me once was and still could possibly be. I see that in his eyes – I always have. Help isn’t only something physical – it’s all-embracing and all-loving! That’s why I have been able to re-enter the "outer" world as much as I have and walk the tightrope between the world of autism and the world of nearly everyone else. I try to explain each side to the other in order to reduce the many fears and prejudices that separate us.

It’s time for so-called "normal" people to realize that those who are different from them in any way are still people! I, for one, am here to STAY and will fight prejudice of every type in every possible way!



I am also constantly asked how I feel about being a grown-up person with autism. I have many feelings about this. Please let me explain:

It is far too often said of people with autism and other disabilities that we "have No imaginations." Imagine someone saying that about you?! Imagine how it would make you feel! Horrible, right? I won’t pretend to speak for or represent all autistics, but I, along with several others I know, have extremely vivid imaginative powers and enormous creativity.


It is, in fact, imagination alone that prevented me from shutting down my "self" and shutting out the world entirely! It was and is my imagination that enabled me to create those defenders and protectors within my own mind that prevented me from losing that very mind itself.


It was imagination that gave me a mental picture of myself communicating by typing. It has helped me write poetry and prose filled with graphic images. It lets me hear words and music I write "inside" my head before they are typed, printed, written, spoken, sung or played, and given "lives" of their own.


It has let me dream and daydream, hope and pray, plan, succeed, and live; and visualize a very bright future where none had seemed possible. It is imagination and creativity, hope and faith, and lots of hard (but satisfying) work that will always be there to see me through.


In my ongoing effort to prove I’m real and to "fit in" everywhere, I have changed nearly every part of my personality and behavior. I truly doubt that very many other people could do this. I have never, ever given up trying to be more like so-called "normals" while clinging to the one thing that makes me most unlike them – AUTISM!


I value my AUTISM above all else with which my life has been "gifted." While I also have cerebral palsy and epilepsy and these are wonderfully special to me, and I often think being "unable to speak" is a blessing in disguise; none of these remotely match the total delight of being AUTISTIC.


I can see and hear people reacting to this by wondering "Is she serious or is she pulling our legs?" Well, wonder no more! I mean everything I have said and am about to say.


I used to view my AUTISM as a major CURSE! I thought IT caused me to be withdrawn, weird, and very unacceptable.

I was wrong, because I have since found out that these are "behaviors" that I can usually control.


I’m not a "prisoner" of anything I refuse to LET control me. If I fight and never give up not only can I win, but I also help others win by the example I set and by explaining myself.


If I had given up, the "DARKNESS and SILENCE" that imprisoned me would have been the only "winners". My life and I would possess little or no meaning, and the true blessings of my AUTISM would have gone unnoticed and died unmourned.



What do I see as the gifts that autism has given me? My incredible intelligence, unique insights, talent for improvisation, creativity in writing and music, wonderful memory, and awesome ability to teach and help others understand... I believe all of these are valuable "side-effects" of my AUTISM that far outweigh all of the "negatives". I am who I am at least partly because of what I am, and that includes AUTISM and how it has gifted my life.



I’m also very lucky I can hear well and that I have communication devices that make it possible for me to "speak." I believe these should be made available to all people with communication and/or hearing impairments. Children should be given them and trained how to use them at the earliest possible age, and similar training should be given to family members, friends, classmates, teachers, and anyone else working or playing with them.


It’s tough enough to live in total silence without anyone or anything making it harder in any way. Technology, education, increased awareness, and understanding are the best answers to making disabilities less disabling. Anyone who is deprived of these opportunities is left without both the right to communication of their own and a life that is better than any they might have without communication. The only real answer is to enable; anything less only disables.


These days, I have unlearned most of my autistic-like behaviors and am much more open and friendly and like being with people. College has helped me learn to do this more and more. It has definitely been an incredible roller-coaster ride, but at least now it’s mostly fun instead of frightening, and I believe it will continue to be! Thank you all for listening today and for seeing and accepting me as a real person instead of just some "autism expert!" Thank you also for joining me on my journey and letting me share my gifts with you and allowing me to explain and educate!!!!

Please feel free to write to me at: Sharisajoy@aol.com


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