Lost In Translation

I’m suffering from a kind of writer’s block with this blog but not in the sense of having nothing to say. I have the opposite problem, I have so much to say and my thoughts have spiralled way beyond my original goals for this blog . I’m struggling to organise my ideas into readable blog posts hence my silence here recently. Anyway……

I have been thinking a lot lately about the position I’m in as a non autistic person with an autistic child. It has crossed my mind that with this blog I am able to write as someone who can act as a sort of translator of autism to the non autistic community.

I don’t believe that a non autistic person can ever fully understand what it is like to be autistic or vice versa. I would never presume to speak with complete authority about autism but I think I do have as good an understanding of the condition as it is possible for a non autistic person to have. Of course, someone with autism could better explain than I how they experience the world but, I perhaps have the advantage of being better placed to communicate those experiences in a way that a non autistic person can relate to.

The other day I was reading an expat blog and it struck me that a lot of expat experiences make excellent analogies to use in explaining autism. It so happens that we are an expat family ourselves, we are British and live in the Netherlands, so I speak from personal experience!

Take learning the local language for example. It is one thing to learn and build up a vocabulary in a foreign language but often quite another thing to use the words appropriately and not stand out as a foreigner. It’s easy enough to learn a few basic words when you are new to a foreign country but what you might not fully understand is how and when those words are used in the foreign country as compared to your home country.

Take the Dutch word ‘alstublieft’. It means ‘please’ and it was obviously one of the first words that I learnt on arriving in the Netherlands. What I didn’t grasp right away however is the many ways in which the word is used in Dutch culture where it isn’t in Britain because it actually has a meaning in Dutch that goes beyond the English word ‘please’ which isn’t really translatable in a literal way. In particular, the Dutch say ‘please’ (alstublieft) whenever they pass something to someone else, be that payment in a shop or a cup of coffee to a friend. For a long time after I had arrived in the Netherlands it puzzled me that cashiers in the supermarket would speak to me in English before I had said anything at all. I kept thinking ‘How do they know I’m not Dutch? What is it about me that is giving it away?’ until one day I realised it was because I wasn’t saying “alstublieft” when handing over my money.

For autistic people, navigating their way through life can be a similar sort of experience. They may learn and know on an intellectual level certain social norms of behaviour for example that non autistic people develop almost without thinking about it, but they don’t necessarily enact upon them on an instinctive level. In the same way as a Dutch person would automatically say ‘alstublieft’ when handing something to someone at the level of a natural reflex, I as a foreigner have to more consciously think to say it at the appropriate times.

Fundamentally there is a difference between comprehending something academically and feeling it intuitively, and this is one of the core differences between the autistic and non autistic populations in some areas of life experience.


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