Diagnosed with Asperger’s aged nine, Rosie King now works as an activist for autism awareness, and last year did a powerful (and drily funny) TED Talk on autism. She’s 17. She’s awesome. Like us, Lucy Reynolds is a bit in awe.
By 17, I’d got a good set of GCSEs and had won a regional art competition that led to my design being printed on a tea towel, and for which I was awarded a £15 Woolworths’ voucher in a school assembly. I felt pretty accomplished. Until I met Rosie King. By the time she was 16, Rosie had illustrated children’s books, presented a documentary that won an Emmy and a Royal Society Television award, and was nominated for a Yorkshire Children of Courage award. Oh yeah, and last year she travelled to Washington DC, where she did a TEDMED talk on autism to more than 1,000 delegates, which was also live screened to more than 150 countries. Wow. Blows my tea towel out of the water.
Now in her second year of A-levels, Rosie also works as an activist for autism awareness, speaking about the misconceptions and realities of living with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Prepare to be inspired.
You’ve done so much at such a young age. Could you give us a rundown on some of your achievements to date?
Well, the first big thing I did was illustrate my mum’s children’s books, which each feature an autistic character. When we were promoting these books on The One Show, I was noticed by the BBC and asked to present a few documentaries (My Autism and Me and Up and Away). This led to more TV appearances, which lead to the public speaking and the TED Talk. But I still think my biggest achievement was developing a close relationship with my brother and sister.
“Trying to ‘cure’ someone with autism is like trying to cure someone who’s left handed, or gay, or Sagittarius.”
What was it like delivering your TED Talk in Washington DC?
I wanted to make a difference and try to educate people on the subject a bit more, so I was eager to do the talk, but when it actually came down to doing it, I was absolutely terrified. I’m an introvert and suffer from social anxiety, so doing such a big talk in front of thousands of people was my own personal hell. However, once I did it, I felt extremely relieved, and my parents were super proud of me. Looking back, I’m very, very glad I did it.
What are some of the common misconceptions held about those with autism or Asperger’s?
A lot of people tend to think autism is a set thing, like we’re all the same or something. But autism affects each person in their own way and while some traits are very common among autistic people, no two of us are the same. Another common misconception is that autism is an illness that can be cured, which is definitely not the case. Trying to ‘cure’ someone with autism is like trying to cure someone who’s left handed, or gay, or Sagittarius. It’s something you’re born with and there’s nothing you can do to change it. The good thing about this is that there is absolutely no reason to change it whatsoever; autism isn’t the bogeyman, it’s just a different way of thinking. Also, vaccines don’t cause autism and even if they did, your kid being autistic is a lot better than your kid getting polio and dying horribly.
How old were you when you found out you had Asperger’s and how did that diagnosis come about?
I was about eight or nine years old. My brother had just been diagnosed and we’d got this book about it to try to understand it better. My parents gave it to me so I wouldn’t be confused or worried about him and I related to a bunch of the stuff that the book was saying. I told my parents and found they saw traits in me too, so we went to a diagnosis and confirmed I had Asperger’s. I was honestly quite pleased when I was diagnosed.
Tell us about your family.
My parents are pretty normal – dad’s a civil engineer and mum’s a hypnotherapist/author. I’m the oldest child, then I have my 15-year-old sister Daisy and my 13-year-old brother Lenny. Daisy has a condition similar to Down’s syndrome, but not as common, called Kabuki syndrome, which affects her physical and mental capacities. She has to wear special splints on her legs so she can walk properly and is very small for her age. She’s also unable to talk and has yet to be toilet trained; she has the learning age of about 18 months. Lenny is similar; he has classic autism and is also unable to talk and has a very young learning age, but his disability affects his physical capacities in no way whatsoever. Despite being the youngest child, he is the size of a man, with a toned set of muscles not dissimilar to an action-movie star. Despite the speech and learning age barrier, I have a very close relationship with both of them.
“No matter how hard I try to learn from other people or copy what others are doing, I can’t quite get it right. It’s like living in a foreign country and not knowing the language.”
If you had to explain what it was like to be autistic, how would you describe it?
It’s like everyone’s been given a set of instructions on how to be a proper person and they’ve been learning all those instructions throughout their lives and by now everyone’s an expert, but someone forgot to give me the instructions, so I never got to learn them. No matter how hard I try to learn from other people or copy what others are doing, I can’t quite get it right. It’s like living in a foreign country and not knowing the language. But autism definitely has its up side, too. I have an extremely visual mind, like a third eye in my head, and doctors have said I have some of the highest visual learning skills they’ve ever seen. That’s pretty good I guess.
What really inspires and motivates you?
Music is the main one for me. I have synaesthesia (a common trait in people with autism), which causes my senses to get muddled up. I have a tendency to ‘see’ songs, and when I listen to music I have a sensory overload. It’s during those times I come up with the best ideas and achieve some emotional highs. Also, for some reason, Tarantino movies. They offer a similar outcome.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to read mainly, as well as watch films and listen to music. I don’t really like going out. I much prefer my comics back at home.
What do you aspire to be when you get older?
I want to be an author. I’m writing constantly, always imagining little stories in my head, and I carry a notebook everywhere I go to jot down any ideas I have. I want to include characters with autism and other disabilities in my books, similar to what my mum did, because positive representation in the media is the best thing you can do to support a misunderstood minority. I would love to make a difference for other disabled people.
What song would be the soundtrack to your life?
Black Me Out by Against Me!. This is my absolute favourite song. I said earlier that music gives me a sensory overload and that’s exactly what this song does for me, in the best possible way. This song makes me weightless, like I’ve suddenly become a rocket ship and all I want to do it zoom away into space and be alone. Not to mention how much I can relate to the lyrics. I’m not sure that the writer meant this when she wrote it, but for me the song is about breaking away from bad environments and being who you are. It means so much to me.
What three things can’t you live without?
Water, air, and food. But I’m guessing you don’t mean it in that way so books, writing and music.
Watch Rosie’s TEDtalk here:
Lucy is a teacher whose dream as a child was to be WWE Wrestling Champion. That dream is still alive.