Alexander Magnussen addresses ‘the future of education’ at a TEDx event at the Chief Sepass Theatre at Langley Fine Arts School this past January.

Motivational speaker talks of value of autism

South Surrey resident Alexander Magnussen has a passion for public speaking.

By Justine Powell, Special to Peace Arch News

Alexander Magnussen has gained more than employment out of his passion for public speaking – he’s gained a new perspective on the challenges that he faces.

“I’ve learned how valuable and how rare it is that I have autism,” explained the South Surrey resident.

With this mindset – one he has even shared at a TEDx talk earlier this year – Magnussen, 28, has booked speeches across the Lower Mainland.

The main message he wants to communicate to his audiences is simple: don’t judge someone’s abilities by how you see them – whether they are disabled or not.

“They may not be presenting themselves in the way they want to, but there’s a secret genius in there,” Magnussen said.

Magnussen likes to use his experiences with autism to inspire people to see his disability in a more positive light.

“Most people with autism are very intelligent.”

While Magnussen frequently presents at school districts, speaking to an audience of teachers and education assistants, he said his talks are “for anyone and everyone” who would like to listen.

The chance to speak at the TEDx event arose when Magnussen searched for speaking opportunities in the Langley school district.

The TEDx program is an independently organized and more community-focused version of the classic TED talk – designed to spark discussion on a wide range of issues. The January discussion was titled “The future of education: Innovation and inspiration.”

After he had accepted that the invitation to speak wasn’t some sort of “sick joke,” Magnussen began preparing. In the beginning, he wasn’t sure that he was ready for such an event – its program included talks from speakers such as restaurateur/entrepreneur Vikram Vij –  but the feedback he received from those around him boosted his confidence.

“Fellow speakers who were very educated…were coming up to me and going ‘I heard about you, I can’t wait to hear you speak’,” Magnussen said, of encouragement he received.

In his speech – titled Bridging the Gap – Magnussen recounted his experiences at school, to illustrate how people with autism struggle and could be better-treated in the school environment.

He suggested that educators hone in on the “autism obsession” of these students and teach them through this area of interest and strength.

This experience has helped Magnussen in his role as chair of the Self Advocates of Semiahmoo, a group based at Semiahmoo House Society, which offers programs for people with developmental disabilities.

Members speak out on issues that matter to them. In the past year, the self advocates have started talking more seriously about issues – specifically accessibility – and they recently raised funds for a beach wheelchair at White Rock beach.

As SAS chair, Magnussen mentors other members, helping them to use their voices to the best of their abilities. Recently, he helped a few of the self advocates prepare for a presentation at Earl Marriott Secondary, listening to them practise and tailoring their speeches.

“I hopefully do it in a positive way and help with their confidence,” he said.

Magnussen, who is also on the SHS board of directors, joined the society’s recreation and leisure program in 2014, after moving to South Surrey in 2012 and dropping in for movie nights for two years.

He said the exposure he gained from his TEDx talk not only strengthened his confidence, but gave him new opportunities to speak, including at two events coming up in Burnaby.

“It really builds my self-confidence to (tell people)… I’m a professional public speaker.”

Magnussen hopes his success will inspire others to explore their potential, and said it is his audiences who inspire him to continue along his newfound path.

“That’s why I do this – for the parents that (realize) this label of autism is not the definition of ‘this kid is going to be a screwup for the rest of his life,’” he said. “Every child, autism or not, has the potential to do whatever they want.”

Writer Justine Powell is a student at Earl Marriott Secondary who wrote this article while on work experience at Peace Arch News.

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