For the past month or so, I’ve basically been non-existent on here. This is because, well, I’m now on my year abroad with uni. Obviously I’d rather keep the details sketchy, but I’m in France, I’ve been here for two weeks, I’m studying here, I’m part of a decent-sized group of people from my university back home, and we’ve also befriended a few people living in our building from another UK university. And while I’m fairly settled now, it’s been a really bumpy ride. Anyway, I thought I’d share a few autism-related things I’d noticed along the way. These are, of course, my personal experiences (and I’d love to hear some different ones), so your mileage may vary.
- I don’t seem to speak French as well as the others – not because of the French, but because of the speaking. As someone who can usually make words happen at least to some extent back home, I forget how frustrating it is when you can’t. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much of the introductory lectures I understand (although, having said that, they are specifically aimed at international students), and a lot of the time, I can say what I need to. Where things start going wrong is in exactly the same areas where I have problems even in my own language. At home, sometimes I can be thrown off by any sort of uncertainty over what I need to say (which means I can’t script before hand), an unexpected turn in the conversation, or nerves; this, at worst, leads to some mildly-incoherent babbling with frequent interjections of “sorry”. However, I don’t currently have any French equivalent for “mildly incoherent babbling” so when the same situations occur here, what happens instead is a terrified silence, occasionally followed by a frustrated yelp when the other person starts speaking English instead because, nine times out of ten, that wasn’t the problem, and by that point I’m panicking and a friend ends up intervening anyway. Hence why one person who, by chance, managed to get into the same bank appointment as me ended up carrying the whole thing, to the extent that the person dealing with us expressly wondered a.) how it could be possible that we arrived on the same day and b.) why I was so scared of her. Hence why, the first time we went to a student restaurant for lunch, I went completely blank and screamed when the person behind the counter started trying out other languages. Hence why I feel like I’m hiding constantly behind the big group, and then feel awful for it.
- Echolalia is through the roof – and almost exclusively in French. Yep, I think I finally truly understand the various things I’ve heard about autistic people (usually children) learning speech through echolalia. There’s even more of it on nights out, probably because there’s a point where everyone else is too drunk to notice and I let my guard down. It currently mostly consists of: things I’ve read on signs, advertisements etc.; something a friend has just said in French; the French translation of something simple a friend has just said in English; and the French translation of something simple that I’ve just thought (not sure if that last one counts?). When I’m not talking to an actual person (and under massive pressure to actually get it right), I love playing with the language.
- OVERLOAD, OVERLOAD EVERYWHERE. My ability to deal with stuff is currently little to none. Relatively speaking, I haven’t been here very long, and while I feel much more settled now than I did last week, I still feel like I’m constantly miles away from my comfort zone (282 miles, to be exact), there are a million background tasks running under the name “DEAL WITH THIS”, and that obviously takes its toll. So at the moment, I’m freaking out over tiny little things, and adult-life-stuff is even more of a mountain to climb than normal. At uni back home, the “making food happen” thing often falls apart at the cooking stage; here, it’s falling apart at the buying-food stage, although in the long run the food thing in particular has actually been less of an issue because we’ve all been chipping in and having dinner together most nights.
- In short, it’s currently much more massively obvious than usual that I’m not neurotypical. At least to my friends – the random people I encounter once throughout daily life in shops etc. probably just assume I don’t understand French, I guess. Amongst my friends here, some of them know I’m autistic but some don’t (and the people who I’ve only met here certainly don’t, unless they’ve worked it out for themselves) so at some point I’m going to do some sort of express “hey, in case you were wondering, I’m autistic, which explains this and this and this…” Facebook post – if anyone knows of any quick, simple and not-awful Autism 101 online resources, I’d be grateful if you could recommend some for this purpose! Aside from that, I’m thinking about making a written disclosure card like those produced by Autistic Hoya, but obviously in French; or, at the very least, sitting down one day and putting together relevant French scripts which don’t expressly disclose my autism but can be used to let people know what I’m struggling with and what, if anything, can be done about it.
- I need to learn to adapt all over again. This will take time. It’s nothing new. In the meantime, I need to get it into my head that neurodiversity is great, I’m okay just the way I am, and it’s. I know this, on paper, but in practice it’s harder.
- People are often much more understanding and supportive than I give them credit for. I’m lucky enough to have the support of a great bunch of people, most of whom I already knew from uni, and over the past couple of weeks they’ve gradually made it very clear that I should go knock on somebody’s door if I panic, I shouldn’t feel pressured to go out every time they do, and generally that they’re not massively judging me for having the audacity to be autistic in their presence. Over the years I’ve developed a tendency to assume that people are going to be awful, but it turns out that isn’t always the case.
- Despite doubts over the summer, I don’t regret my decision to do the year abroad at all.