By Kristi Gentile, a member of the Czech Republic February 2018 team
“…..You don’t speak Czech…”
My team and I arrived in The Czech Republic with relatively little to no expectation of the amount of English we would encounter. No member of my team has traveled to The Czech Republic, and while it was exciting that this was an entirely new experience for each of us, the reality is that navigating successfully through a country that speaks an entirely different language than the one you know is not easy.
Things you don’t even remotely consider to be an issue can suddenly become tricky. It was in a supermarket that these built up differences began to impact me on a greater level. I stood there staring with a crinkled forehead. I couldn’t differentiate between salt or sugar; yogurt or cheese. I couldn’t read the words, so I solely relied on the package to guide me to the correct item. I had no one to ask directions from as I wasn’t able to communicate to these people in their language. This place is new and I’m afraid of it. It smells weird, and it was disorienting. I don’t recognize the people, or their facial expressions. I feel like an outsider.
More thoughts began to bulldoze into my brain.
As I squeezed my way through confusing aisles of faceless people, I began to rethink the words of those I told about my upcoming trip. I was primed for this, but it didn’t sink in until I was here—and now it’s too late. I’m totally freaked out.
I searched and searched for things that felt familiar, but was unable to find them. I was clinging to my rigid expectations of what I’m comfortable and familiar with. I’ve never experienced differences like this, and I didn’t have the necessary tools to cope with the fact that I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces, in an unfamiliar place, unable to communicate my needs, and listening to the foreign language that surrounded me. My innate language skills were no longer present.
I found what I could. I got to the cashier and struggled to find the correct amount of money with no concept of how much I was even spending. I didn’t know the checkout protocol, so I relied on my own customs—behaviors I’ve learned that have worked for me. It was only once I got back to my Airbnb surrounded by the familiar items I had with me that I brought from home, that I began to calm down and recap on this new supermarket experience.
The flood of emotions in an unfamiliar environment with new people, new sounds, new smells, and new rules flipped my world upside-down as a clinician.
These overstimulating and overwhelming feelings are part of the everyday lives of many of the children I work with that have autism.
It dawned on me: how would I have liked to have been eased during this situation? How could I have prevented these overwhelming feelings? How would I have liked to be prepared for what was to occur when I stepped into that supermarket?
This experience has suddenly given me a newfound perspective.