When I was at school it was common to have a few foreign exchange students join us for a week or two. They seemed so exotic. Their clothes were brighter, speech eccentric, even their mannerisms seemed strange and new.
I was never lucky enough to host one of these fascinating creatures, but recently have been enjoying a cultural exchange of my own.
Imagine being air-dropped in a foreign country. Totally fluent, you just fall out of the sky one day. You’re articulate, the locals treat you as one of their own. They assume you understand everything, not just the language but also cultural jokes and idioms. Facial expressions seem strange and don’t always equate to those you saw back home. Gestures you knew to mean particular things make little sense.
The initially friendly residents of this new state become short tempered with you, assuming you are ignoring them, or being rude and difficult. As well as this, all colours seem much brighter, and the volume of everything has been turned up to the very edge of bearable. Textures seem more pronounced, clothes rougher, trees pricklier and worst of all – smells are much smellier.
This is the closest I can come to imagining the world my bright, witty 15-year-old son with Asperger syndrome inhabits. I can tell you now that if I was living with that every day I would be crankier, more tired and have meltdowns on a regular basis. Wouldn’t anyone?
The family he was airdropped into was noisy, opinionated and busy. Oh, and blessed with a permanently sarcastic mother.
I had limited experience with classic autism through my work as a speech therapist – so never suspected my son could be on the spectrum. He was caring, cuddly and very verbal, fond of long complex words; this was not what autism looked like. Being busy with two other children, one of whom had significant special needs, I was quite short-tempered. This boy who didn’t listen properly, willfully misunderstood obvious situations and took everything literally.
I’m known for being perceptive, caring and empathetic (modest too!). In moments of glorious parenting these graces were not extended to the boy.
I could not believe he could not follow simple commands. ‘Your ears are big enough, use them.’ He used multisyllabic words in conversation, but would then ask for explanations of simpler words. ‘Of course you understand it,’ said the ever-loving mother. As for the ‘tantrums’ we thought he was putting them on.
The day I saw him practicing facial expressions, I began to wonder. My guide into this new country was Tony Atwood. As I read The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome the scales fell from my eyes (metaphorically speaking). It became my anthropological guide. Chapter after chapter, another apology to my poor boy.
Attempting to understand his autism has included unpicking everything I perceived and understood to be normal. Things I assumed were right are just cultural or societal, not inherently correct.
I’ll give you an example. Someone recently told me that a member of their church was autistic and non-verbal. The church was very accepting of him even though ‘he always wears a hat, won’t take it off – and of course you can’t wear hats in church.’
I nearly choked on my tea. Who or what decided that wearing a hat in church was wrong? GOD?! This, my friends, is a cultural, not ‘normal’ expectation.
Presumably, our culture has this ‘normal’ expectation too, which allows us to happily go about our lives feeling comfortable and reassured. Now, like it or not, my son is going to have to learn some of these rules to ease his way into society, but actually as a society perhaps it’s us that need to make some adjustments of our own.
Look at our own culture. We live on a small island with a rich literary history. Fond of quotes and metaphors, big on small talk and oblique passive aggressive hints. How would anybody on cultural exchange be expected to know that the correct answer to, ‘does anybody want this last potato?’ will always be ‘no’? Why would anybody peel their eyes and if they did, how would that help them to see better? If somebody looks affronted but says they are ’just fine’, why are they angry if you switch topics?
The English put a high value on social conformity, and are just waiting to be embarrassed, hard if you are wearing the wrong clothes, tapping, flapping or smelling the items in shops.
The boy was reluctant to wear coats. I have taken ages to get my head around this. I am a chilly mortal, and have worn gloves in June before now. He, however, is not me. Also, he has sensory processing disorder. I was astonished to learn that this is really common in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). So, perhaps I needed to look at the fact that he would happily wear a hoodie. A hoodie is, after all, a coat by another name.
Wasn’t he grateful when I bought him two pairs of new jeans as he’d asked? ‘One just the same and one a different colour and cut, just to make a change,’ I assured him. ‘The horror in his eyes as I realised – rookie mistake on my part – that for many people with ASD, a change will NEVER be as good as a rest.
So, as I prepare my boy for transitioning into the wider world, where going shoeless and wearing a 4-year-old hoodie, which only reaches his elbows is frowned on, he also shows me that so many things I thought were important, are really just part of my culture. It is, indeed, possible to wear a duvet outside to keep you warm. Do this in public and the locals will stare at you. Is the staring more uncomfortable than wearing an extra layer? That’s your choice.
I’ve learnt to hold clothes to my cheek before buying, and laugh at idioms. We journey through together, picking through social etiquette, deciphering the most important rules to save, to keep the peace, while trying to keep it real.