Am I also autistic?

13 November 2014

Dear friend,

As an Expat the complexities of navigating social situations in a different language and a different culture can be extremely challenging. My communication is impaired as it takes me longer to process the information that is given to me and also slightly longer to formulate and give my answer. Initially, birthday parties, meetings, medical appointments, parties, Sinterklaas etc were all social situations that confused me. For example; the Dutch kiss three times and have a unique custom of congratulating every family member when it is somebody's birthday. I still find some situations challenging and will do almost anything to avoid them. In some ways I feel autistic!

Friday morning I was enjoying a rare cuddle, sandwiched between my two boys. Mid conversation the big lad announces that the teacher said children could dress up for Halloween today. Standing under the shower I pictured the whole scenario. All the kids sitting in fantastic costumes while my big lad had nothing. How to make the different kid even more different. Another bad mummy moment. But then I had a brainwave. Dracula... It's amazing what a teacher can do with a black bin bag, face paint and hair gel. I was actually proud enough to post a picture on Facebook. Well pride comes before a fall!

What I failed to remember was the Drs appointment before school. The assistant handled having Dracula in her waiting room well but some of the patients were less charitable. Particularly when he started trying to hide under the desk, at the mention of the flu jab. I tried my best to ignore this behaviour and got him to return to his seat pretty quickly. The other patients no longer made eye contact.

Autism is often described as an invisible handicap. I find the invisibility of autism very challenging at times like this. Maybe that is why there is an over abundance of t-shirts for sale with affirming logos like autism warrior. I am always quick to tell shoe shop assistants and medical professionals O is autistic but does Joe public really need to know? If you want to judge then quite frankly you need some social training! It's not that I am hiding his autism, I just see him as so much more and don’t want him to be defined by it.

As we walked to school we chatted about who else would dress up and what they might be. The big lad was excited. You can see straight into the classroom as it faces the yard and as we entered the building I glanced at the kids sitting in a circle. None were dressed up. When we entered the class the teachers face was priceless. I mumbled something like, he said it was a dress up day but only got a puzzled shrug and a hurried sit down please so I left, quickly. He was sat in the circle with a huge grin, wafting his cape. I must admit I found it rather amusing but that feeling didn't last long…

His teacher had obviously had a sense of humour failure as the e-mail I received made it very clear that in their school (Dutch, Christian) it is not the usual practice to dress up for Halloween. It also stated that some of the younger children had been scared. Big lad's response was; it wasn’t me that scared the little kids mum, it was the costume.

Today was my turn to mis-read the social situation. How did it make me feel? Uneasy and foolish, I should have thought this through, it was a stupid mistake. Is this how my son is made to feel when he misinterprets something or misunderstands a social cue? If so then it is a miracle that he remains so positive and happy. Perhaps we do need those t-shirts after all...

Autism and being bilingual

7 November 2014

Dear friend,

This is an article I wrote for a fantastic web site. In culture parent.

There are many excellent articles for parents raising children in a multicultural, multilingual environment.

Why I ignored the professionals advice to drop my sons second language.

Nine years ago I fell in love with a ‘Dutchie’. We married and I moved to the Netherlands and soon after had my son. As an educator working in an international school, I never questioned my children’s ability to learn two languages. My belief was that children exposed to another language from birth would pick it up easily. I had worked with children that spoke four or five languages. I never questioned my son’s bilingualism or our approach to it—one parent one language (OPOL).
By the age of two, it was apparent that Oscar was different than other children. “More of a care child,” was how one rather abrupt nursery teacher described him. The first time his bilingualism was brought into question was at the age of three. The advice given by the teacher was to learn Dutch very quickly and only speak Dutch with him. Although as I child I was raised to respect professionals and believed that they knew everything, as an adult I understand that professionals, despite their best intentions, sometimes get it wrong.


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