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'Would I Trade in My Autism? No'

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Having a child diagnosed with autism can be one of the most devastating moments in a parent’s life. But just one of many things not widely understood about this range of developmental disorders is that not all autistics retreat into a world of silence and isolation. Taylor Cross, diagnosed when he was 6, is today a comic-loving, video-game-playing 17-year-old from Thousand Oaks, Calif. He believes that his disorder, which affects his speech, concentration and personal interactions—hugs feel like “an invasion of space,” he says—is simply part of who he is. For his film Normal People Scare Me, Cross invited other high-functioning autistics to describe autism from the inside. “The message is hidden in the title,” he says. “What the hell is normal anyway?” Here are some of their stories:

Swimming pools calm her down

DELANEY RODGERS, 16: Water makes me feel safe. When I’m swimming, it’s one of the only times that my head is quiet. Creating art also feels very calming. When I draw, I go into a place in my head where there are no distractions. Otherwise there’s just so much sensory disruption.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when I was 8. Before then I had a feeling I was different. I had trouble understanding teachers if they didn’t say things concretely. Like if one of my teachers said, “Do that problem over,” but didn’t actually point to it, I would be trying to figure out what problem they meant. I would get all upset. But I can also do some things really quickly, like reading, and learn very, very fast if somebody gives me very clear, visual instructions. Right now I’m in ninth grade, but I also take 12 hours of college courses.

About three or four years ago I first started realizing that I needed to make small talk. All my friends knew how and I felt left out. At first it seemed like magic. But I taught myself how to do it. Sometimes my mind feels noisy, but I’d never wish for my autism to go away. It helps me focus.

In his mind, a world of his own

PETER FOY, 18: When I feel stressed, I like to twirl a piece of string between my fingers. When I was younger I did it in public, but now I just do it at home. It helps me think more clearly. My mom calls it my “drug,” so I can block out reality. In my mind, I’ve created an alternative reality with hundreds of TV episodes or movies. Some are sequels to favorite movies like Pulp Fiction. I don’t really tell many people about them. I just replay them in my head. I like my autism because it makes me unique. However, it used to get in the way with people because I was so opinionated. I’d tell other kids who were smoking that it was bad for their health. Or not to swear. But I’ve gotten a lot better since then. I’m a lot better at eye contact and making small talk. I didn’t mean any harm, but I guess they felt lectured to. Their name calling was pretty brutal. I never really learned to tie my shoes or hold a pen properly. My grip is too loose. But I can take notes with a word processor, and I’m excited to be going to college next fall. I want to see what I’m capable of. I don’t worry about the academics. I’m a B-plus student right now. And I don’t want to be seen as ignorant. I’m as intelligent as the next person, if not more so.