'MY MIND BEGAN TO WAKE UP'

Sue Rubin doesn't remember much about the first 13 years of her life: "Sadly, I was locked in autism." And from inside that locked-up place, "I actually only remember waving to regular school" and at regular life. "That's a nice way to put it, Suze," her mother, Rita Rubin, says ruefully. Sue used to beat her head against the concrete floor at her school, and regularly bit, kicked and pinched her parents. She was considered severely mentally retarded, with an IQ of 24, and through years of what her mother calls "every therapy you can imagine," she remained utterly unresponsive. "Holding Sue was like holding a sack of potatoes, because you got nothing back," Rita says. That slowly began to change in the fall of 1991, after a school psychologist in Whittier, Calif., where the Rubins live, suggested that Sue try communicating with a keyboard.

"As I began to type, my mind began to wake up," is how Sue, now 26, describes all that followed in the screenplay for "Autism Is a World," a documentary about her life by Gerardine Wurzburg. In the Oscar-nominated film, Sue writes about how words themselves became her way--not out of autism, but into the wider world.

A year after Sue began to type, she enrolled in mostly honors and advanced-placement high-school classes, eventually graduating with a 3.98 grade-point average, scoring 1370 on the SAT. Today she's a junior history major at Whittier College and lives semi-independently, with an aide, in her home a few blocks from campus. In a paper she presented earlier this month, she wrote, "It was only after I began to type that my brain became organized enough to understand what was going on in the world around me... I became aware of people and their killer personal lives. I also realized the world was larger than Whittier, California... I began listening to the news and reading the newspaper... Thinking about world events wouldn't seem to have anything to do with learning how to control autistic behaviors. However, that is what happened. As I became more aware of the world around me I also became more aware of myself and my autism."

As always, however, self-awareness was a mixed blessing: "It was awful seeing how different I am," she types in an interview. It bothers her, for example, that she still feels compelled to carry around a handful of plastic spoons. "I knowingly contribute to my looking retarded," by doing so, she says in the film. "But spoons are my comfort. I cannot explain how or why I need them, I just do."

Sue still can't communicate verbally beyond a few phrases; instead, she types into a machine that then speaks each sentence for her at the push of a button. Critics of facilitated communication, the keyboard method Sue uses, believe it usually reflects not the thoughts of people who have autism, but of their aides, who may be unintentionally guiding them. Sue, however, has typed on her own for several years now, and had a lot to say--on autism, politics and her favorite pastime, playing the ponies--in a recent interview at her home, where she was waiting at the door, holding her bouquet of spoons.

When she first started typing, Sue used an impressive array of swear words that shocked her parents, and she still loves to jolt new acquaintances out of any preconceived notions they might have about her interior life. What she really enjoys, she says, is a day at the track, or better, a trip to Vegas, where she stands on a stool to play craps. She also likes Tom Petty, Bush bashing, shoe shopping--the day we met, she was wearing pink Uggs--and the occasional touch of sarcasm: "I'm actually just being a jerk," she tells me at one point. "I enjoy giving answers that Melinda does not expect."

Sue is most determined to dispel some common ideas about autism. She insists, for example, that people with autism are capable of empathy. She understands how others feel, she says, even if their problems sometimes strike her as trivial in comparison to her own daily struggles. And it bothers her that her face does not easily register all she does feel. Yet she manages to convey great urgency when she types: "Tell everyone that nonverbal autistic people are intelligent!"