The Highs and Lows of Being Autistic in Tanzania
So, to make life slightly easier for myself this week and due to it continuing to be busy I have decided to write one post that I can put up on both my blogs that I write- about being in Tanzania and about autism, it therefore made sense to combine the two of them for this week. While I have not mentioned it on my Tanzania blog before, on the whole I am fairly open about being autistic and see it as a positive thing (although it inevitably brings along many challenges) and think it is something that needs to just be accepted more in society and recognised as just a difference as opposed to something overly negative that needs to be 'cured'. I have an official diagnosis of being high-functioning and don't meet the stereotype of being into maths or sciences, I instead collect words, and generally geek out over things such as books, films, international relations and currently Christmas.In many ways coming to Tanzania would seem like the opposite of (to generalise) what someone on the spectrum would do. The change of accommodation, food, climate, language, culture and continent is quite a lot to adapt to and on the whole I'm not a particular fan of change. However, I do like to push myself. An article I recently wrote for a website for you people who are autistic, I pointed out that being on the spectrum and moving countries can sometimes be a benefit. I am fairly used to not really having a clue as to what is going on around me socially and so being here and trying to work out the local culture is not that much different, and uses skills to decode that I have been trying to develop for many years. Furthermore, what is particularly helpful about being in Tanzania is that in Swahili and Masai languages there is a certain pattern in the language that has to be followed making it all make a lot more sense. You must greet each person depending on their gender and age, following this about 3 or 4 lines continue afterwards of conversation that are the same everytime. All that is required is the ability to memorise them and then your all good to go, the politeness factor is out the way and then you can carry on as normal! English should also develop such a process - would make life a lot more straightforward! Being autistic I tend to get super, super excited about many things in life- to the extent of jumping up and down. I think this however here happens even more so. Living without many luxuries it is possible to get excited over things such as a hand dryer in a public toilet, a new sponge in the kitchen sink, the fact the power is on, food that doesn't consist of ugali and beans. Basically I manage to spend quite a lot of my time feeling fairly enthusiastic about life, thanks to the little things that exist! I have been told by many people I resemble 'Miranda' for getting excited about things- I ended up showing one of the other volunteers here a clip from one of the episodes and she agreed- yet to work out if this is a good or bad thing! While there is certainly a lot of positive that comes with being on the spectrum and being in Tanzania- I have found many of the things I find most difficult to adapt to here, other people don't have an issue with which can make them even more difficult to overcome. I am extremely clumsy (I have managed to use an entire box of '100 assorted plasters' since arriving two months ago), and manage to fall over thin air, burn myself, slice or peel my fingers or just generally manage to break things on an extremely frequent basis. Here, there are many added complications with this. At home in Scotland I have, thanks to the NHS, a range of amazing kitchen appliances and adaptions that means I can cook and bake safely without having to have a means to get to A and E available. Here, it is not possible to bring these with me and so I have had to severely limit what I can do. Add to this that I often am out the house, for 11 hour days and arrive back super sleepy and there is often no power so cooking happens in the dark with a torch and having to deal with a pot of boiling water, knives or peelers is like for most people deciding they need to juggle with these items in the same conditions. As a result I eat a lot of sandwiches, and things such as avocado which require minimum preparation! (Luckily these are some of my favourite foods anyway). The other challenge in Tanzania and being clumsy is that the rainy season has begun and it is extremely slippery outside! To side track slightly, we've had some of the scariest journeys of my life here as in the landrover we have managed to hit many banks, been thrown from one side of the road to the other and had an extremely close call with a tree! We had to get out and walk yesterday as the land rover refused to budge any further. These journeys do however provide fantastic cardio exercises without even having to stand up! I am hoping to get a video of a journey on my phone once I become confident enough to not spend the entire time holding on to the handle by the door! The irony of all of this and currently being the athletic as well as activity coordinator has provided much amusement to quite a lot of friends and family! Any way, as you can imagine with the landrover struggling to drive through the mud, the people also struggle to walk through it. It is a bit like walking on slush and ice up and down hills- very difficult. With this predicament and my inability to go anywhere without falling or slipping in the mud, the security guard/ football coach/ person who manages to sort a lot of problems at the school- Mzee- presented me on Tuesday with a stick so I can now walk around! It has made such an improvement to my quality of life! I have only slipped once with it, and it also now provides a talking point where ever I go. I feel slightly like I should also have the Lord of the Rings soundtrack playing all the time as I walk around, armed with stick in rain, wrapped in waterproofs! The other main challenge that I have found here has been the lack of persona space. Living in a volunteer house, working and socialising with the same people can sometimes be quite tough. Especially when working six day weeks. Fortunately I now have my own room which has made a difference and now I am teaching less and working more on research, organisation and activity related projects I am now able to work from home on Wednesdays. This has helped enormously and I actually get more work completed this day than any other. It also means I can have a day off from being social and recharge for the rest of the week. I now sound like I hate people, which I really don't- I just find people exhausting! What has been good about Tanzania is that I get considerably less anxious about things then I do in Scotland. Being here, there is always something going on that would give me plenty of reasons to be anxious, however, I am finding that if there is a reason to be anxious I don't tend to be as there is normally a problem that can be dealt with instead. I am also slowly learning to adapt to last minute changes, which hopefully I will be able to continue to do so at the end of the year! What has been particularly good about being here is that I am discovering I am able to use some of the skills that often go alongside with being autistic. I am hyperlexic, which I am discovering has made a bit of a difference with learning Swahili (although I am still not anyway fluent and would really like to be a lot better than I am by now), occasionally I am able to come out with a phrase which I have no idea where I learnt it but it seems to be right. I also with some things just have to write down them once and then I have it memorised- I am really hoping to make more of an effort when I come back in January to carry my Swahili notebook everywhere with me to write down more so I can memorise it. I have also discovered here that I really do like organising things. As a child I would spend my time 'playing' by lining up my toys either in height, colour or something similar- now I get to organise classes activities so they all have something in place. I was told during the teachers meeting this week that I need to organise an activity week for students in less than two weeks time. The students are off timetable for the last week of term and I have to plan activities for them to take part in each day from 8am to 4.10pm. After the initial- what on earth do I do moment- I am now having a lot of fun planning it all- organising sports events, scavenger hunts, construction projects and a concert to take place. I am also super excited about the thought of getting to code and analysis data next term taken from interviews with a range of people in the local community. On the whole, despite the challenges I am definitely enjoying being here. Now just to complete the last two weeks which include organising 58 people from our school attending a sports weekend (next weeks blog) and then activity week before I fly back to Scotland for a month! N.B. for the debate over person with autism versus autistic person I have gone with the latter as it is what is polled as the preferred option for those on the spectrum and also what I personally prefer. It only becomes negative phrased this way, when autism is also viewed negatively.