By Nils Skudra
This morning I had the opportunity to watch My Name is David, a compelling short film featuring the actual words of David Shapiro Sharif (May 28, 1997 – April 23, 2022), a young autism advocate who recently died suddenly at the age of 24.
Made in Claymation, the film provides an informative examination of David’s experiences with autism, highlighting its various strengths and challenges, and serves an educational purpose for teachers and students around the nation. I felt that this would be a highly valuable film for review since it can help to promote empathy and understanding for children and young adults on the autism spectrum and ensure a more inclusive environment in classrooms.
The film opens with David walking in front of his class, wearing a t-shirt with the blue crossword puzzle piece symbol of Autism Speaks, which has posted this video on YouTube. He begins his address with the words, “Hello. My name is David, and I am autistic. I look like most other boys, and I have many of the same interests, but I am different in many ways.”
He then elaborates upon the traits that distinguish him from other people, including his difficulties with social situations and understanding his peers. For example, he notes that he has challenges with understanding metaphors such as “Pull your socks up,” by which people may actually mean, “Pay attention.” He explains that this is due to his tendency to think literally and expect people to mean literally what they say, a very common trait among many individuals on the autism spectrum.
David further elaborates upon the sensitivities that people with autism have toward loud noises, which he copes with by covering his ears, and toward physical touch. In his own experience, he has an aversion to being hugged unless he is the one who initiates the hug, as well as a phobia of dental cleaning instruments. “It took my parents a long time to find a dentist who understood my sensitivity,” he explains. Fortunately, the dentist approached this issue by allowing David to feel the instruments beforehand so that he would have advance notice of how the procedure would go, noting that “she works with me slowly and does not force me to do anything I don’t want her to do.”
Another aspect of autism that David discusses is the tendency of autistic individuals to talk almost exclusively about the subjects that interest them.
“For example, I like to talk about sports, trains or Legos. I feel safe and confident when I talk about things that I like a lot… I might need help changing the subject. I’m not able to read your face and see that you are bored. So just tell me, and I will do my best to listen.” David Shapiro Sharif
This is a very poignant observation that I can relate to since I have a passionate love of U.S. history, particularly the American Civil War period, and I like to talk extensively about the subject but sometimes have been told that I should be careful not to overshare information and that I need to show consideration for other people’s interests. I have made significant efforts to improve upon this tendency so that my peers can see that I care about listening to their perspectives and learning about their interests.
David also talks about the advantages of having autism, including having a photographic memory and the ability to absorb information very quickly. For example, he states that he can name the capitals of every state in the U.S., closely observe the movements that a basketball player makes when shooting a ball through the hoop or imitate the arm movements of a person at the bowling alley. “That helps me be a better bowler and basketball player,” he notes. David further elaborates:
Autism is a condition that affects the way the brain processes information. Not everyone has autism, and it is not an illness. It will not go away. No one knows exactly why people have autism. I will always have autism, but as I grow up with the help of friends and family, I can learn a lot of things that come naturally to most people. You can help me by understanding that I have autism and by not making fun of me. You can tell your friends and family what you have learned about autism. Being patient and understanding with all of us who have autism will support us greatly.
This speech is very powerful in articulating an educational message for school audiences, encouraging teachers and students to develop empathy, compassion, and understanding for individuals on the autism spectrum. Since students with autism are often ostracized and bullied in school settings, it is vital that faculty and administrators provide coursework in empathy and emotional intelligence to promote an inclusive environment.
Since writing this speech at the age of 14, David Sharif went on to become a global autism advocate and motivational speaker for RespectAbility, a disability-led nonprofit organization that seeks to create systemic change in society’s outlook toward people with disabilities, and which advocates policies and practices that empower members of the disability community to have a productive future. Considering David’s recent passing, I strongly believe that this video should be utilized as part of promoting autism awareness and greater inclusion for individuals on the spectrum.
Although the video received significant criticism from AgeofAutism.com for misrepresenting autism through its presentation of a high-functioning individual as a standard-bearer, I feel that it can be used as a learning template so that viewers can discover more about the diverse demographics of the autism community and develop a more in-depth understanding of the challenges and strengths that autistic individuals bring to their social life.
My Name is David has been viewed by close to a million people. David’s legacy of transforming attitudes toward autism include his poetry book “The Empowerment of My Condition,” and a number of prose reflections on what it meant to be autistic. See David Shapiro Sharik’s obituary here.
Header photo: David Shapiro Sharik taken at the annual New York ‘Celebrate Israel’ parade. Courtesy of www.progressiveisrael.org.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.