Two minutes into our interview in Thompson Hall, Katherine Grimes—“Katie,” on second reference—must leave. She can’t concentrate, because the murmurs of students passing outside the closed door are amplified to rock-concert cacophony in her ears.

Let’s try another location, I suggest. The Cooper Publications Building is quiet. But as we step through the door, Katie’s first words are, “What’s that smell?” I’ve long since relegated the ever-present odor of printing ink to the background. Katie doesn’t.

As I turn on the lights, Katie immediately closes the door to my office, her defense against more assaults on her senses. She sits in a chair, crosses her leg at the ankle, touches her short, blonde hair lightly, then touches it again, eyes taking in a state map on the wall, lists of phone numbers on the bulletin board, the sleeping computer monitor. I see she’s distracted and ask, “What do you notice?”

Everything. An offset printer chuk-chuk-chuks in the building’s heart. The ventilation system whispers overhead. A ceiling light flickers imperceptibly. The phone rings. She asks me if I could shut off the phone.

I look at the 20-year-old Washington State University sophomore and wonder if Homo erectus was autistic. Such hyperawareness would explain how the species went from hunted to hunter. Katie knows her four cats by smell.

“We lose touch with our senses,” she says. “We shouldn’t tune things out.”

A woman of distinction

In early March, Katie, who earlier earned the Girl Scouts’ highest honor, the Gold Award, traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the scouts’ Young Woman of Distinction award, along with nine other women in the nation. The group was recognized for providing exceptional service to their communities and showing great dedication to achievement through their Gold Award projects.

Katie met U.S. senators, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Elizabeth Dole, astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, and others celebrating the Girl Scouts’ 90th anniversary. All 10 of the scouts received a $1,000 scholarship.

Representing her community of Federal Way, Katie had set her sights on earning the Gold Award a few years after she joined the scouts as a second-grader, a time when resources for children with autism in her hometown were few. And the best person to start the Federal Way Autism Support Group, it turned out, was Katie herself.

Like a cat

Katie was diagnosed at age three with pervasive developmental disorder, a subtype of autism. She is high functioning—meaning she talks, has few autistic traits, and can do almost everything a non-autistic person can. On the other end of the spectrum are low-functioning individuals who are often nonverbal and neurologically impaired. Each autistic individual is quite different from every other.

According to information on the Autism Society of America Web site, autism impacts the brain’s normal development in social interaction and communication skills. Those with autism typically have difficulties in communicating and playing with others and relating to the outside world. They may exhibit repeated body movements, such as rocking, unusual responses to people, attachments to objects, and resistance to changes in routines. They also can experience sensory awareness.

Katie is rather particular about what she eats. No cheap, fast, junk, or low-quality food. No split-pea soup. No raw vegetables. Or meat that’s overcooked. But she enjoys sauerkraut and seafood of all kinds.

She can become overstimulated or overstressed. She doesn’t like to be touched by strangers unexpectedly or without permission. She doesn’t like handshakes.

Though nearsighted, she can see very well in the dark. She sleeps a lot.

And when Katie is in a new environment, she has to check everything out.

“Like a cat, we sense more,” she says. “I don’t consider this a disability; it’s a hyper-ability.”

Where autism is maladaptive for Katie is in discriminating between different sensory and social cues with the ease and speed of a person without autism. In class, she sometimes tunes out the professor’s dialogue or tunes in to one part to the exclusion of the next piece of information. It takes her a long time to make choices, as from a restaurant menu.

Yet autism gives Katie blessed leave to question why people do or say things in the first place.

“I’ve noticed the peculiarities of how people act, how they follow cultural norms. Most people learn cultural norms and follow them without recognizing them. I notice these norms and choose not to follow some,” she says. “When people ask you how you’re doing, but don’t want or don’t wait to hear an answer if it’s bad, I don’t understand that. Sometimes, I’ll answer truthfully when I want to give the world a piece of my mind.”

But the outspoken Katie is intensely private. It’s one reason she chose to major in German, along with biology, when she came to WSU. Much of what’s associated with the German culture is very similar to how Katie experiences autism. She tends to be formal, orderly, and reserved. She keeps her distance from other people and is more particular about whom she calls a friend—she must be quite close to someone for that.

“We’re not adolescents now”

“As an adolescent, I had a lot of frustrations and struggles because of my disability,” says Katie.” When I was quiet and didn’t say anything, my needs were ignored. So I started acting up, misbehaving, to get people to realize my issues were important.

“Events like Columbine have raised awareness of cruel harassment in schools,” she adds. “We always wait until some disaster happens before we deal with a serious issue.”

Things changed for Katie in high school, with more resources available. She also met a successful individual with autism, Temple Grandin, now a Colorado State University assistant professor. There was hope.

“Now it’s a lot easier. People accept me more for who I am. I’ve learned appropriate social cues,” she says. “Here, people who are a little odd or unusual are accepted. We’re not adolescents now.”

Katie started the Federal Way Autism Support Group two years ago when she was a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School. Another group leader has since taken over the work Katie started now that she’s on the other side of the state continuing a Cougar tradition. (The Grimes family is loaded with WSU alumni: mother Lisa Tylczak Grimes in 1976, father Thomas Grimes in 1977, grandmother Ruth Hillier Tylczak in 1944, and aunt Margaret Tylczak Heffelfinger in 1974.)

“It would have made things a lot easier if I had known other high-functioning autistic kids like me,” Katie says. “Just knowing there were others out there would have helped.”