Aspergers Syndrome and Culture Shock : parallels in isolation
Culture, value and norms are signposts. So what do you do when you can’t read the signs?
I am, unfortunately, an expert in cultural misunderstandings. After 10 years living outside my home country, I have accumulated a rather disproportionate amount of personal experience, read and studied the subject academically so that I could easily write a book about it. And yet, I still get tripped up on cultural norms and codes in my daily life. I live ‘abroad’, and I will never innately know the culture like a local. Now I mostly roll with the punches. It wasn’t an easy attitude to adopt, and I humbly owe much of what I learned to a man on the autistic spectrum who helped me see invisible tripwires in my chosen culture.
Obviously, it’s entirely possible to have cultural misunderstandings in your own country (across generations, race, income brackets, orientations and abilities, etc.) and yet there’s an added layer of disorientation, similar to living without gravity, when you move abroad.
In my case it was a choice and an opportunity to move abroad and I did so with much enthusiasm and youthful ignorance. I’m an “NT” or neurotypical person, so I’m used to thinking like, and relating to a majority of folks. I was therefore especially unprepared for the isolation that ensued. It came as an even bigger surprise because I grew up in a bilingual and bi-cultural household. I was a third culture kid growing up in Toronto, Canada — ‘the melting pot of diversity’! I was basically made to go abroad, Right?
Flashback to when I first arrived in France 10 years ago: my effervescent energy that once drew people to me and propelled me to this very lonely spot abroad, now served as a precious and quickly depleted reserve. It was a bulwark against the chaos of rituals, signposts, and negotiation. No belonging, no placeholding, no exceptions. The framework was all wrong. Try again tomorrow.
Feeling like invisible roadblocks thwarted my comprehension of reality and my place in it, was common.
The truth is I stumbled, a lot. I bumped against edges I didn’t know existed, sometimes the edges of my very reason. Feeling like invisible roadblocks thwarted my comprehension of reality and my place in it, was common. Sometimes, it really is like gravity no longer exists. Try understanding that after growing up in a world defined by this particular scientific phenomenon. It’s tough to conceive of new ways of existing when you always thought your way was the default way, the best way, and certainly, the easiest.
Luckily, we can learn to adapt.
Now, a decade later with many countries, language barriers and breakthroughs under my belt, energy is bubbling gently up, like from a spring underground. I did not get here alone, however. I had many kind words, and most of all, I had a loving guide to navigate the chaos with.
It was my serendipitous meeting with X that was a watershed moment in my life. Not so much an interpreter, but a veteran in life sans gravity, X knew about the bulwark, he knew about people because he spent his time watching them from his own world on the spectrum. It was amazing to finally meet someone who ‘got it’ at a time when I felt submerged in difference and exclusion. He helped me navigate and understand life without gravity. More than anything, he had patience and kindness writ large over his every action. He was able to indulge my ignorant trespasses as those of youth, of growing up sheltered, white, and (shudder) suburban (I have a real hate on suburbia which I may or may not explore later).
He knew that most people did not see the level of energy required to interact. The majority could not and did not understand that his or my point of departure was so unlike their own. His own interactions required Herculean will. I understood this, as my own initial fumbling in foreign culture and customs left me totally depleted and isolated after many attempts at being social. Plus, hello introverts I see you! I could relate, in a small way to his experiences, and he to mine.
The foundation for our connection during that time became based on the incomprehensible - the signs and codes that were invisible to both of us, if for different reasons. Our shared disbelief at injustices to people, was certain-a code and values that remained unmoving. This certainty became our reinforced centre of gravity, together. It was reassuring during what felt like a personal apocalypse compounded by overconsumption of news of all the harmful events near and far. In the face of a bleak future, a solid unmoving core kept things at a changeless pace to counter the free-falling chaos beyond the walls of our cozy unit.
It was great until it wasn’t
Living in unchanging isolation, though comforting at first, grew suffocating until the point where breaking free from it felt like another kind of revolution. One I would repeat several times.
Here, I simply wish to draw parallels between what I experienced as the most isolating time of my life and what someone on the spectrum may experience all the time. And while crumbling under that kind of pressure seems about as normal as pie, it is also possible to surround yourself with the right resources and thrive, objectively speaking (maintain a steady job, hobbies, a couple close friends, even meet new people).
For me, the NT, it required getting involved in a lot more real life social networks, and making myself known to a small but stable group so I didn’t have to explain who I was or why I existed every time I met new people. Having projects, dreams and mapping out future goals with milestones is deeply motivating for me. For X, it would mean getting qualified support, returning to a familiar place, familiar comforts, routine, calm. Whether or not he would consider it thriving is another question, but from the outside and in terms of stability, he has impressively secured himself a healthy life and great job.
And yet throughout the shifting tectonic plates of our relationship, compassion and deep respect, though unlikely at times, seemed to prevail. I take comfort in knowing that even in it’s unfurling, it was still a reflection of our values.
Signposts and rituals hold little mystery now, even if they require tending to. Every now and then, a new one crops up, and I can’t see it. I don’t even know it’s there, but I bump into it all the same. I observe people, systems and rituals, but my hypothesis remains unconfirmed. I’m on my own now.
I benevolently reflect back on my former self and think: “how is it possible to have been so naive? You thought you could waltz into another reality, just like the one you came from, only the décor is a little different? Child!” And I was in many ways a child. A big, 24-year-old child. And now I’m a big 33-year-old child with a bit more life experience to help me get to the next level. Whatever the outside may look like, we still are the child we were before the storm of life occured.
Now it’s just the routine of adult life with a rehearsed performance to keep in time to: dodging roadblocks begins to look like a fancy side shuffle, a tripwire incites a graceful hop. The daily dance of chaos is met with new moves, a new vocabulary of rock steps, slides and swing outs.