The quirks in Ramsey Brewer’s conversation are subtle. The 17-year-old repeats himself from time to time and makes small mistakes in the words he uses. For instance, he says he and his best friend look scaringly, not scarily, similar. He also pauses at odd spots, and for a beat or two longer than most people do. When he’s talking, he makes eye contact briefly but then slides his eyes sideways—or closes them. And his comments swerve in unexpected directions: Asked where he goes to school, he says Boston Latin Academy, but then suddenly adds, “I’m not actually from this state,” even though he and his family have lived in Massachusetts for years.
Ramsey knows he regularly misreads other people, but he leaves it to his mother, Kathryn Brewer, to explain how. Once, she says, when she had just climbed some stairs and was short of breath, he thought she had been about to cry. During a visit to the dentist, when Ramsey put on the safety sunglasses, the dental hygienist joked with him: “Hey, you can really pull those off.” Taking her comment literally, he pulled the glasses off his face.
These slight miscues mean that it only takes a few minutes of being in Ramsey’s company to guess that he has autism. Yet he falls within normal ranges on standardized tests of language and cognition and gets high grades at his prestigious mainstream school. It’s that combination of challenges and capabilities that brought him to Ruth Grossman’s Facial Affective and Communicative Expressions (FACE) lab at Emerson College in downtown Boston. There, Ramsey is participating in a series of studies investigating how social communication goes wrong for adolescents like him.
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