In My Language

Baggs, Amanda

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Web Video

Annotated by:
Garden, Rebecca
  • Date of entry: Jan-27-2009
  • Last revised: Jan-30-2009


This eight-and-a-half-minute video begins with a woman rocking in front of a window and waving her hands. We hear a woman’s voice singing the sound of “e,” almost without melody. The first half of the video follows this woman’s activities: a shot of her hand rhythmically scraping a looped wire against the surface of a door, repetitively stroking a keyboard, batting at the pull chain for window blinds, and bouncing an orange plastic slinky. The woman rubs her face against the pages of an open book and rocks and listens to the sound of the book’s pages as she flips through them.

Halfway through this short video, text appears: “A Translation.” What follows—in the form of a voiceover and subtitle text—is more than a translation of the autistic woman’s actions just observed. It is a manifesto revealing and protesting the assumptions often made about people with autism and how those assumptions have led to institutionalization and the exclusion of people with autism from the category of persons.


The video shifts dramatically from the unnarrated, unexplained shots of repetitive movements and seemingly unintellectual behavior, accompanied by the singsong, wordless voice, to a fast-moving and powerfully argued statement in the voiceover. The viewer soon recognizes that the voiceover is produced by the filmmaker, Amanda Baggs, through a voice synthesizer. Through the voiceover, Baggs articulates complex and subtle thought simultaneously with our viewing images of her—running fingers in and out of a stream of water and standing and rocking while waving her hands—that, without the voiceover, would very likely be interpreted as evidence of a cognitive deficit.

Baggs’s voiceover explains that these behaviors are not symptoms of cognitive limitations.
On the contrary, Baggs’s repetitive movements and sound-making are part of her complex interactions with her environment, a mode of communication that is multi-dimensional compared to verbal language. Rather than being in a “world of her own,” Baggs experiences her environment in a fully sensory way, through touch, taste, and smell, as well as vision and language. Baggs comments on the irony of her verbal interaction—which she sees as relatively limited in scope compared with the interaction of all her senses and faculties—being perceived by others as the autistic person “opening up to true interaction with the world.” She protests the limits of people who are neurologically typical and how that restricts their view of people with autism, so that “the thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language….It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication.”

This video is a remarkably effective tool for teaching not only disability issues but also how wrong we can be when we judge people without sufficient knowledge or experience. Students easily reflect on their initial impressions of Baggs in the first half of the video and how radically those impressions shifted after hearing her voiceover. They respond to her objection to being labeled “mysterious and puzzling” when it is in fact those who are not familiar with autism who are confused.

It’s helpful to combine a discussion of the video with an article such as David Wolman’s in Wired Magazine, published Feb. 25, 2008 (“The Truth about Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know”). The article provides more information about Baggs and responds to skepticism about whether she is capable of making the video herself. It also articulates how neuroscience’s understanding of autism is changing, from a disease model to a “difference model,” reflecting better measurements of the cognitive abilities of people with autism. It is also helpful to situate Baggs’s video in the context of other (longer) narratives by people with autism, such as Donna Williams (Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic), Temple Grandin, and Dawn Prince-Hughes.

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