Generous intellect: College of Charleston junior turns disorder into world-changing gift
Alix Generous just turned 21. If she wanted to, she could buy a beer.
Instead, the College of Charleston junior has been a bit busy. In just the past year or so, she has presented her own coral reef research to the United Nations in India, studied neuropathic pain at MUSC and is now examining childhood epilepsy at a prestigious Boston medical school.
And on Saturday, she presented a TED talk in Albuquerque, N.M. The event featured physicists and educators, CEOs and techies, writers, a doctor, a folk healer — and her. She discussed the need to tap people’s unique minds to solve the world’s complex problems.
She discussed it by way of personal experience.
Generous has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and nonverbal communication. She grapples with depression.
She’s also a genius, one with big plans.
Now, to round out 2013, she will serve in November as a youth delegate for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, Poland, advocating for global technology sharing.
“I want to teach people how to use their quirks to help others and make this world a better place,” she said. “But before we can do that effectively, we have to build an environment where mental diversity is accepted.”
Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when she was 3 or 4, Generous began taking Adderall at 6, and was (wrongly) diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
She recalls an early childhood spent unhappy and heavily sedated.
At 12, when her mental health and behavior spiraled with the onset of hormones, her parents took her for further treatment. She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
It offered a welcome definition, a label for her idiosyncrasies.
“But that was a totally wrong way to look at it,” she recalled. “As I got older, I realized that I am not a diagnosis. I’m a person with a very complex personality.”
Then her divorced parents moved in different directions — her mother to New Mexico and her father to France.
Generous looked at boarding schools. One was a Quaker school in rural Ohio with a focus on environmental sustainability where students helped to grow their own food.
Her own parents didn’t so much as recycle back then, and she never had heard of global warming.
But her best friend was going to that school, and best friends had been hard to come by.
When Generous visited the Olney Friends School in Barnsville, Ohio, an intense feeling came over her.
“I felt really connected to it,” she recalled.
At 15 she became one of the school’s 55 students and learned about everything from tagging salamanders to the thrill of competing in rigorous environmental competitions.
“It became a place where I belonged,” she said.
By the time she graduated from high school in 2010, she no longer saw Alix as a diagnosis. She saw herself with gifts.
Truth be told, she didn’t want to go to the College of Charleston. Her parents bribed her with a car.
She entered as a music major after teaching herself to read sheet music, a hippie girl in long skirts and cowboy boots from a tiny Quaker boarding school.
The first year was awful.
“Socially, it was a miserable experience,” she recalled. “It was very hard for me to transition.”
But then she met people like her current best friend, Victoria Hamilton.
“She’s a genius, but she’s a really, really cool person,” said Hamilton, a psychology major who has cerebral palsy. “I feel so blessed to have her as a friend. She’s the most unique person you will ever meet.”
Together, they formed an eclectic band of friends and got involved with the college’s Students Needing Access Parity, which assists students with disabilities.
For instance, the staff suggested that Generous take tests in a room with blank walls, a table and a pencil — and no other stimuli to derail her focus. She went from B’s and C’s to A’s.
“It’s just the way my mind processes information,” she said.
When she enters a room, it’s hard for her to focus on a single conversation. All stimuli rise to equal importance in the clamor. If she’s with a friend, she struggles to filter out other conversations.
She’s not aloof or incapable or shy. And it’s not that she cannot read social cues.
It’s that she gets “completely over-stimulated.”
“I notice everybody else and the vibe they’re giving off,” Generous explained.
She recently noticed that she tends to mimic the body posture of people she’s talking to. She’s not trying to mock or annoy them.
“I just read people really intensely,” she said.
Meanwhile, she switched majors.
She had become infatuated with mental illness. At first she considered psychology, but she wanted more of a molecular basis for her education than a behavioral one.
After all, modern brain imaging has revealed physiological bases for many disorders, including depression and ADHD, and is opening new frontiers for medical researchers.
“This is where it’s moving,” Generous said. “It’s really promising.”
She even began hosting her own show, “Brains and Fluff: Making Science Sexy,” on the college’s radio station and blog.
Now she loves the school. “It’s just been a really great choice for me.”
But she’s still not big on crowds. She hates clubs. She’s not fond of drunk people.
“And no small talk allowed with her,” Hamilton said.
Generous is simply not one to linger on the surface of conversation — or of life.
Diving into research
In the summer of 2012 she went on a research trip with other students to Bali, Indonesia.
Diving into research
While snorkeling amid the coral reefs, her blooming interest in pharmacology and neuroscience sparked an idea for a research paper.
She had come across the concept of quorum sensing, a process bacteria cells use to communicate with each other and survive. She wondered if ensuring that communication stays active would boost coral resilience to climate change and other causes of reef damage and death.
She submitted her resulting paper to the 2012 Citizen Science research competition. Winners would be invited to the U.N. Conference on Biological Diversity in India.
When her friends had gone to a party one day, Generous received an email.
She had won first place in the undergraduate division. The honor meant presenting her idea to 14,000 U.N. delegates from 193 countries.
She journeyed to India last fall, a country she recalls as rich with colors and sounds and smells. Not to mention an abundance of people.
“It was like an Asperger person’s worst nightmare,” she said.
And a revelation.
At one point she saw a series of tents made out of mud and trash along a street. It was a women’s shelter.
Yet she also talked with a teenage Indian girl about her boyfriend, a universal discussion between young women.
As with people who suffer mental illness, Generous realized it’s easy to stereotype people from other cultures as the age-old, unknowable other.
“When I left India, I felt a sense of being united with other people in the world. It really inspired me in a lot of ways.”
A life’s passion
This semester she is at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston studying childhood epilepsy and damaged brain tissue in a neuroscience lab.
A life’s passion
She will return to Charleston in December with plans to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. program specializing in the interdisciplinary science of neuropsychopharmacology. She envisions her future self developing psychiatric drugs while treating patients and advocating for them.
It will be a lot of work.
“But when you’re passionate, it won’t feel like work,” she said.
She’s particularly passionate about explaining brain disorders so that parents raise their kids to see themselves as “awesome” and gifted — no matter their diagnoses.
It was the crux of her Albuquerque TEDxABQ talk.
“I want to reach as many people as I can to spread a message of acceptance, both of people and their quirks, and even encourage others to embrace them,” she said.
Yet even she still struggles. She has learned to cope with Asperger syndrome, but dark waves of depression still plague her.
Even while in India, she felt horribly depressed. Nobody knew.
But she’s learned that if she keeps working, the depression eventually will subside.
“Successful people aren’t people without problems,” Generous explained. “Successful people use their positive coping mechanisms. A lot of successful people have these issues but they’re able to deal with them.”
And to turn them into gifts.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563.