On the surface, Georgia Lyon looks like an ordinary high school senior. But until recently, she had a secret identity: On paper, she was the pseudonymous Florida Frenz, the insightful, hilarious, mysterious teen author behind "How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl."
An illustrated collection of observations, anecdotes, and revelations about human behavior, "How to Be Human" follows the author as she first learns skills like reading facial expressions and understanding body language, and then uses those skills to navigate the tough social landscape of high school.
In her book, Lyon describes how the principles that guide human behavior and language can seem completely alien to an autistic person, as though something essential is getting lost in translation. For instance, she writes, a "quiet" classroom is really anything but:
"The students still create noise by shifting positions in their seats, which makes their pants rustle and their chairs squeak. The teacher can be just as noisy, pounding away on a laptop, turning the pages in a book, and occasionally clomping around the classroom."
For a person like Lyon, the result is a sort of sensory overload that's confusing at best and unbearable at worst. For instance, a surprise touch on the back or shoulder (something that the average person might find comforting, or at least not bothersome) is interpreted by her brain in a very different way.
"If someone touches me on my back where I can’t see it, to me it can feel like a slimy eel is sliding down my back," she told MTV News.
To find out more about what it's like to navigate the world as a person with autism, and how to be a supportive ally to people on the autistic spectrum, MTV News caught up with Georgia -- who is finally revealing her identity as the author of "How to Be Human" -- to ask about her high school experience, her future plans, and the strange, exquisite art of being human.
MTV News: The drawings and exercises in your book started out as a way for you, personally, to get a better understanding of the world. What made you decide to share them with others?
Georgia Lyon: I wanted to help other people with autism, and also without, who were going through the same challenges that I was. I wanted to help them feel that the world was not an alien place and show them that it’s possible to adapt, that there are tools and resources out there. And if you have enough determination, you can make it through, even if it seems difficult.
MTV: This process began for you when you were very young. At the point that you entered high school, did things get easier, or harder? Did you have to make any changes?
GL: I would say that life, for me, got easier in high school, because I’d done so much work as a younger child. I think a lot of people just assume that kids pick up how to communicate and intuit emotions on their own, and they really don’t. So there’s a steep learning curve in middle and high school, and since I’d done that work when I was younger, learning how to talk to people politely, how to interpret body language, how to understand facial expressions, that was helpful.
The one thing I had to develop is the ability to understand humor, because between third grade and high school, humor definitely grows and matures. It basically goes from being, like, potty jokes to -- there are still silly, crude jokes in high school, but there’s a lot of sarcasm, there are jokes that try to undermine authority and social norms. Learning to understand those jokes -- when they’re appropriate, when they’re not, when they’re actually crossing lines -- that’s a process. But it's been a rewarding one, because I know how to make and take jokes better now than I ever have.
The main thing in high school has been learning to be myself, be polite and respectful to people, but to still stay true to my core values and interests, and to choose my friends that way.
MTV: Has that worked out well for you?
GL: It has. I think that people can often sense when you’re being kind of fake and phony. Even if you seem perfect on the surface, they’ll distrust you because they can’t figure out who you are. Whereas if you’re honest about who you are, people will tend to like you more, because even if you’re imperfect and a little bit weird, they know where you’re coming from.
MTV: Have there been any moments in high school that stand out for you that way, where you felt like things really clicked or you learned something important about other people?
GL: This actually happened recently, after I finally shared my book and my experiences with autism with my friends at school. I noticed that one of my teachers never thanked me in person, but they sent me a very nice email, and I realized after that that this particular teacher was kind of socially awkward. What I began to really think about was, oh, it’s possible to still be socially awkward even if you don’t have autism. So maybe a lot of the time, when I thought I was the cause of a conversation dying out suddenly, or that I was contributing a nervous aura to the social scene that was kind of undermining everybody, maybe it wasn’t just me. Fundamentally, what I learned is that there’s a lot of people out there who feel uncomfortable about other people. Even if you do mess up, a lot of other people are probably messing up around you, too.
MTV: So for those of us who might have autistic friends or family members, and who want to be helpful and supportive, what would your advice be? Is there anything you wish more people understood about autism?
GL: Listening to the autistic people in your life is really important. Autism affects each autistic person in a unique way, so you can do research, you can talk to experts, but even that isn’t enough to give you the whole idea. It's important that you respect the autistic person's individual feelings and interests, even if that means they're a little bit out there and socially awkward.
And I do believe there are some stereotypes about autism in the media that are kind of incorrect. Not every autistic is like Alan Turing or the Rainman, where they have these extreme social deficits that prevent them from leading a normal, healthy life, but then at the same time they’re extremely gifted in mathematics and can revolutionize the world with their genius ideas. That doesn’t represent the autism spectrum as a whole; there are some autistic people like that, but the autism spectrum is very diverse. I just want to remind people that while there are many similarities between people on the autism spectrum, they can have many differences in how the brain functions. There's a saying I really identify with, and it goes: If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
MTV: And if you could give some advice to other teens with autism, what would you tell them?
GL: Even though on the surface it can seem like you’re really different from other teenagers, you really do have a lot of similarities with them. For instance, a lot of people with autism struggle with sleep issues, for various reasons, and certainly a lot of teenagers do as well. So you’re in good company if you’re an autistic teenager! And I think teenagers in general, not just those with autism, feel uncomfortable in their own skin. You’re experiencing such emotional growth, and everyone feels gawky, and too mature in some ways, and not mature enough in others. I think most teenagers can empathize with the feeling of being socially awkward and overwhelmed.