Is having ASD kind of like living abroad?

Editor’s note: Before you read this post, please let me emphasize that some of the ideas presented below may be completely wrong. The experiences of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are varied. There is no “one size fits all.” I read blogs and watch YouTube videos created by individuals on spectrum because I want to educate myself and learn more about how to meet my brother where he is because I respect him. Because I have done this “research,” I don’t *think* anything I am about to say is wildly inaccurate. However, I am not diagnosed with ASD and do not know what it means to be an individual with ASD, so the following are simply musings.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if people who have lived in a culture completely different from their home culture and language have an infinitesimal understanding of what it feels like to be on the autism spectrum.

The thought occurred to me when I was reading a blog post about language and cultural rules by an individual with ASD awhile back. At some point during my perusing, I thought to myself, “Huh.. that’s kind of how I felt when I did my semester abroad in Spain.”

Abroad: You want to communicate something but you can’t because the foreign words get jumbled in your head. Or, they are all there in your head, but something in the process breaks down when you try to get them to pass your lips. Or, you think in your “native” tongue, then have to quickly translate to your “environment’s” tongue, and get it all out before your companion is six sentences ahead of you.

I experienced all of these things. I came down with a fever and a stomach bug about a month into living in Spain. Mi madre (host mother) tried to feed me FISH to calm my stomach. I wanted to tell her, politely, that that sounded like the WORST. IDEA. EVER. I think I even quoted some warped version of Patrick Henry in my fever-addled head: GIVE ME SALTINES, OR GIVE ME DEATH! However, my body was all discombobulated from the illness. My brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. After an awkwardly long pause, where I tried to gather my thoughts and figure out how to say in Spanish, “No thank you. I think I’d rather try some crackers,” I gave up and said, “No. Gracias.” It was frustrating because it wasn’t what I wanted to say, but it was the best I could do at that time to make myself understood on the most basic level.

ASD: This is what an individual with ASD may experience in his native language (not even talking about a foreign one) when feeling perfectly healthy. The words may be in his head, but the wiring of his brain/body may prevent him from speaking them, thus giving the impression that he has a lower IQ than he really does. Research has shown that children with ASD process sounds 1/50th of a second slower than their peers. 1/50th of a second doesn’t seem like much, but if you’re constantly a bit behind, it’s going to add up quickly. A mom who asks her verbal son, “How was school today? Did you do anything fun?” and gets exasperated because it takes him 15 seconds to come up with an answer to the first question may not understand that he was still on the words “How was..” when she finished her second sentence.

If you’re into exercises, find a friend who’s willing to play along. Have them ask you a one or two step question such as “What’s your favorite color?” or “How do you like your sandwich cut, in triangles or squares?” Then, set a timer for 10-15 seconds. Respond to their question when the timer goes off. It’s an uncomfortable and awkward pause, but it’s what a lot of people on spectrum need.

Abroad: Depending on your level of foreign language study before you arrived, you have proper grammar in your head, but what you really need to learn is the vernacular, where one phrase has five different meanings depending on the tone, inflection, and sentence structure. Almost all of my teachers/professors prior to Spain taught Central/South American Spanish. It turns out the accent and vocabulary is a wee bit different between the two continents.

In Spain, the word that stumped me for weeks was “vale” (pronounced “vah-lay”).

When we initially arrived in the city, our program director gave us a walking tour so we could get our bearings. As he finished explaining something about a plaza, he said, “Vale,” and signaled for us to follow him.

I made a mental note, proud of my use of context clues to figure out the translation for a new word. Vale = “come on” or “let’s go.”

Later that night, my host mom told me what time dinner would be and asked, “Vale?”

Hmm…Now I was second-guessing my interpretation from earlier. I guess it means “Is that ok?”

In class that week, our professor asked us if we understood something, we said yes, he said “Vale!” and continued on.

Err, maybe it means “good.” OK, SERIOUSLY. WHAT DOES THIS WORD MEAN?!?!?!?

I soon found out that it means all those things.

ASD: Depending on the way it is used in American English, “Hook up” can mean: 1) connect, as in make plans to meet later; 2) kiss; 3) sexual intercourse; 4) connect, as in an internet or cable connection. Based on my speaking partner’s facial expressions, vocal inflections, and the nature of our conversation, I can quickly figure out which of the above definitions he/she means. From what I understand, individuals on spectrum are not as adept at this “art.”

Imagine a young man with ASD is at a bar. He’s talking with an acquaintance (let’s say it’s a female). She asks him, “Do you want to hook up later this weekend?” This doesn’t give him a lot to go on. She’s smiling, she seems to be having a good time, and they know each other through friends. Does she mean Definition 1, 2, or 3?!?!

Additionally, different regions of these United States have different vernacular. My section of the country refers to sandwiches consisting of deli meats, lettuce, tomato, etc. served on Italian rolls as “hoagies.” Even though this is the CORRECT AND ONLY name for the sandwich, for some reason 90% of Americans refer to it as a “sub.” Even weirder Americans call it a grinder or hero. It’s the exact same sandwich, but there are at least four different names for it.

Abroad: You have a whole new set of cultural mores and idiosyncrasies to learn.

While I lived abroad, I discovered that the Spanish do not believe in waiting in lines. I had been trained my whole life to patiently wait my turn in line, so I was baffled one morning when the bus pulled up and a man who had been making a run for it leaped in front of everyone who had been waiting and climbed aboard. I thought it was a random occurrence until I had the same thing happen to me at a bookstore (three people got in front of me.. THREE), in the school cafeteria, and in line for the bathroom. I had to adjust my behavior and be more assertive in these situations, even though it made me uncomfortable.

ASD: Individuals with ASD first learn about their family home environment and the “rules” there. About the time they (maybe) get that under control, they get thrust into the school environment, where the rules are different from the rules at home. Once they (maybe) get a handle on elementary school, it’s on to middle school, which is everyone’s worst nightmare. There’s a brand new set of rules to learn. Games or TV shows that their peers liked a year before may now be considered “for babies,” but the child with ASD still likes those things and doesn’t understand what changed or why (Dude was still watching Teletubbies, Barney, and Sesame Street when he was 9, 10, 11). Personal hygiene is now super important (anyone who was in 7th grade can vividly recall the day the boys all discovered cologne). The opposite or same sex, depending on orientation, no longer has cooties and kids start kissing in darkened corners or behind sheds at birthday parties. For all intents and purposes, adolescence is like getting dropped into a whole new world (did you just sing Aladdin in your head? ‘Cause I did) and it can be extremely bewildering for the young person with ASD.

Sooo yea. These are some of the parallels I’ve been thinking about. I’m interested to see what other people’s thoughts are. Have you lived abroad? Did you get frustrated when you couldn’t make yourself understood? Were there any cultural differences that baffled you? What about the vernacular/slang compared to what you had learned in the classroom?


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