Autistic Thriving @ TEDx

This is the complete unedited script of my TEDx speech, delivered today amidst a flurry of technical failures and farcical-comedic twists. (Read about it here.)

Dawn-joy Leong
4 August 2018
TEDx Pickering Street


I dance,
I cannot walk,
The ground,
It is too strange.
I must count:
One, two,
One, two, three!

Autistic people are given many different labels by the non-autistic world. One of them is ‘clumsy,’ and by that measure, I suppose I am – it is a conscious effort for me to walk in a straight line, navigate bumpy surfaces, and stroll and chat at the same time. Yet, how does ‘clumsiness’ explain the ability to dance? When there is music, my body becomes freed from the tyranny of the walk, and the ground doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.

Another description that autistic people cringe at is that we “suffer from Autism”. Autistics do not suffer from Autism, but we do suffer from social stigma, patronizing condescension, discrimination and ignorant misrepresentation.

What is autism?

Simply put, Autism is a difference in neurological function: it is the way our brains work that is not the same as the norm. The medical model of Autism, created by non-autistic observers, paints Autism as a bleak and barren existence devoid of empathy, lacking in social reciprocity, and mired in rigid, meaningless repetition. In truth, the autistic’s world is a rich, thriving ecology of multisensory experiences and insights, amidst juxtapositions of acute challenges, unusual abilities and everything else in between.

‘Autism Awareness’ has become somewhat of a trendy topic these days, with all kinds of events created in the name of Autism, mostly by non-autistic persons. What exactly are you being made ‘aware’ of? And where are the Actually Autistic voices in this grand cacophony of opinions and interpretations?

Here’s the reality: Autistic people live in a world designed by the normative, where non-autistic persons armed with only the medical model claim expertise, despite little or no understanding of lived-experience; while Actual Autistics – even highly qualified professionals – struggle to have their voices heard on a platform that is about us and belongs to us.

In 2017, I stumbled upon a top university’s School of Medicine Autism Research webpage. To my horror, I saw the word “disease” used to describe autism. This is not only outdated and inaccurate, it is utterly insulting to autistic people. I sent them two emails, which were ignored. But when a non-autistic colleague wrote to them, the offensive word magically disappeared! This is the socio-political climate in which autistic persons are forced to live.

A major paradigm change is urgently needed!

How can autistic persons across the spectrum grow and thrive, not despite autism, but because of the unique features? And what can society learn from autistic people?

Accept, Respect and Embrace

It is time to move beyond mere awareness of autism as uncomfortable anomaly, into accepting and embracing Autism as a natural variation in human neurodiversity. There needs to be equity and respect. Just like everyone else, autistic people come from all walks of life, with a wide range of interests, hopes, dreams, abilities and struggles. Every individual has a narrative, a story to tell. Listen to us, especially on matters concerning us.



I am a Board Member of the Disabled People’s Association Singapore, a disability advocacy organisation that believes in the statement, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” At the DPA, training is provided to members who wish to learn how to engage in advocacy and develop leadership potential.

Advocating on behalf of autistic people is wonderful, but not enough. We must also advocate for ourselves. With or without words, we can all advocate! Even very young children can learn how to do this, and you will be surprised to find how powerfully we can contribute, not only to the autism discourse but also ultimately to wider social inclusion.

Discover & Empathise

Have you ever made the effort to find out why we do the things that seem so strange to you?

Why do some of us find it painful to look you in the eye? Does it make you uncomfortable when we flap our hands, spin around, or fidget? Did you know that this can be calming for our nervous energy and anxiety, or even ways to express various emotions like love, joy, excitement and distress?

Why do some autistics seem to connect so much better with animals than with other humans?

This is Lucy Like-a-Charm, trained to mitigate my sensory anxiety – we belong to the organisation ‘mindDog Australia’. Rescued from the cruel Greyhound racing industry, Lucy is my creative muse and closest companion. We’ve had many amazing adventures, one highlight was returning to Singapore from Sydney together in the cabin of a Qantas flight.

To me, Lucy is not a substitute cute human; instead, I cherish her canine embodiment as different from my human one, and it is this very difference that unites us inside our shared space in time. Lucy has taught me to honour my natural autistic ways and pay heed to my intrinsic needs. In my PhD dissertation, I coined the term “Clement Space” inspired by Lucy’s gentle, wordless example: she has shown me the importance of finding and creating pockets of calm and restoration wherever I go, thus reclaiming sensory equilibrium and strength to journey onwards without burning out or melting down.

Perhaps, the reason so many autistics prefer animals is this empathic connection and appreciation of difference, rather than insistence on bland uniformity. Ironically, instead of being empathy-impaired, autistics and their animals can teach the world a great deal about empathy, if you care to learn.

Ability and disability

Some autistics may find it hard to do daily tasks, like tying shoelaces, or are unable to communicate in a language that you can comprehend. This does not mean that we have no intellect, it does not mean that we do not hear or understand what you are saying. There is a real human inside each and every one of us. Please, do not talk over us as if we are not there. Acknowledge us. Presume Competence! It is not hard to do.

Our autistic world is so full that we may react to things you do not notice at all. We are not ‘smiling at nothing’, we are not ‘crying for nothing’, and we are not engrossed in vacuous monotony.
Have you ever considered that the people you call “low functioning” are actually engaging with a reality that is far more complex and magnificent than yours?

Welcome to My World

I am Autistic. This is my brain. This is my body. This is my life journey. I have spoken thus far about ways in which you, the normative, can help autistic people to grow and thrive. The favour is not merely one-way: when we flourish, so will you.

Now, let me invite you to step into my domain, and share with you how you may thrive, inspired by natural autistic ways of appreciating the world.

Inside a Clement Space of my own, where there is sensory peace, there is amazement and delight. Things that are intrusive and assaultive when experienced in normative contexts – sounds, images, textures, vibrations, tastes, smells – can also fill me with wonder, when I connect freely with them on my own terms, inside my Space of Mind.

Think through the body – whatever body you may possess. Sense, and therefore, exist. Sense your senses, and in sensing your senses, allow your senses to sense your Self, and everything around you.

I invite you to intuit my reality, by magnifying your own.

To the non-autistic, it may seem that the autistic person lives in an empty vacuum, but in fact, it is a busy vortex of intimate mind-body conversations with the material universe.

Communicate with and through the elements that continuously impact the senses. The smallest, most insignificant things can fire vivid imagination. Be enthralled by minute differences and evolutions in patterns and structures.

Become truly aware of every vibration, from the miniscule to the colossal, even the reverberations and echoes that you yourself create. Begin with the most basic, tiny organism. Remember. Imprint. Expand. Then reach outward, sensing the process, connecting one thread at a time. Again: remember, imprint, and expand.

Notice how independent entities merge slowly, patiently, precisely; and enjoy the intricate patterns they make as they greet, touch and intertwine, until a larger and larger dynamic form is constructed. This is not ‘meaningless repetition’, it is enchanting organic development.

If you approach the luscious fabric of creativity in this manner, from the inside out, you will not be confounded, despite the apparent chaos, because your understanding shall be sensed throughout your Being, without need for meandering postulation.

Imagine a world in which different kinds of minds come together to share unique strengths and inspiration. Imagine safer, inclusive communities where each individual is a dynamic part of a whole, and the whole embraces the individual. Imagine a Neurocosmopolitan culture of empathic vibrancy.

It is not my purpose to ‘fix’ what is ‘broken’, but to empower beauty in the vulnerable and unnoticed.

Dancing with my shadows
Whispering, “Good Night”
Humming silent wishes
Smiling deep inside

Dancing with my shadows
Jarful of moonbeams
Come, lay down beside me
Wake up in my dreams!