Monday, April 6, 2015

Lost in the Translation

Years ago I met a lady who was preparing to move to a country where they spoke primarily Spanish. While she was still learning Spanish, she had to translate the words in her mind from English to Spanish or from Spanish to English because she “thought” in English. After being submerged in Spanish for a while she told me she thought and even dreamed in Spanish, rarely using English anymore. Her primary language had changed from English to Spanish. That amazed me.

April 2, 2015
English is my first language but I speak one other language. I have become very fluent in autism. Autism will never be my first language but it is my son’s primary language. I have to think fast and translate back and forth in my mind as I listen to my son speak. Autism is similar to English but the dialect of autism we speak is difficult for many people to understand. When a person who does not speak autism comes into my home they can become confused because of the language barrier that will exist for them. They will be able to pick up on many of the words and ideas but not everything, much like the lady who was just learning Spanish when she moved to the country where everyone else spoke it fluently.

My son walks into the room and says, “When there is no cereal, I eat toast.” I think quickly and realize he means that we have run out of his favorite cereal and he is hungry. He would like for me to make him some toast. I know what you are thinking: Why didn’t he just say, “Hey mom, can you make me some toast and would you put cereal on the grocery list?” Well, someone who uses English predominantly might do that. But my son Tate speaks autism as his first language. English is his second language and he just cannot quite master it. He leaves out a lot of details, expecting me to fill in all the blanks. He, like many with autism, believes I am having the same thoughts and feelings he is having. It is very frustrating to him when I cannot speak his language and he has to try and use mine. We often go round and round in circles.

Speaking of thoughts and feelings… the dialect of autism my son speaks does not allow him to put feelings into words. He cannot really let me know he is sad, angry, confused, frustrated, uncomfortable, or disappointed, with words. Recently Tate learned to ride a bike and that has been incorporated into his Physical Education class at school. Having his bike at school makes him very uncomfortable. He likes everything in its proper place. I do not know this because he has put that into words. I know that because he says things like, “It’s illegal to keep a bike at school!” and, “We ride bikes on Wednesdays for six weeks. How long ‘til we bring the bike home?”

First Shave
So, the cereal/toast and the bike at school examples were easy ones. Let me give you another example of just how hard it can be to translate if you do not speak my son’s language. I had mentioned a few times in recent months that Tate was going to need to start shaving soon. That must have made him nervous because he began telling me he wanted to grow a beard. What I did not think about was the only thing Tate knew about shaving was that his dad smears shaving cream all over his face to shave. Tate has sensory issues and I never intended to have him shave with cream and a razor. He hates textures like shaving cream. Had I thought about the language barrier I would have talked to Tate about using an electric razor. I bought an electric razor and he was happy to be shaved.  He has stopped talking to me about his desire to grow a beard now. It’s a good thing. He only had about two-dozen long whiskers.

Just as it is difficult to translate some words into another language, my son cannot seem to translate a few of our English words into his language. In English the word “homework” would be defined as something like: assignments a teacher gives their student to complete outside of class. That word is taboo at our house but not for the reason you might think. It is not necessarily about avoiding the math worksheet or memorizing the spelling words. Schoolwork is work you do at school. But you NEVER do schoolwork at home. THAT is the difference between speaking English and speaking autism. Some of the words or phrases just do not mean the same things.

Then there are all the misunderstandings that come with our language barrier sometimes. This evening Tate’s dad was praising him for doing something correctly. Shawn said, “Tate! You were ‘right on the money.’” Tate looked around quickly and said, “What money?” All those kinds of quotes and sayings have to be explained to Tate because English is not his first language. Autism is. Recently, we were out in the woods close to our home, burning some brush and cutting some firewood. I had a small fire going and Tate was helping me throw tree branches on the fire. I saw he had thrown some of our sticks of firewood into our fire. I said, "Oh Tate, don't throw those on the fire. That is the firewood we are cutting." As soon as I heard myself I laughed. Of course he was throwing FIREWOOD onto the fire. What else would it be used for? I had not explained to him the difference between the firewood we were saving and the tree branches we were burning. Sometimes I just forget the language barrier and assume he understands the language I speak. How could he? His first language is autism and he is still struggling to understand English. 

One of the things Tate says most is, “Oh Sorry.” I hear it all day long. If he drops something he says it. If I have to repeat an instruction he says it. If he changes his mind he says it. If he misunderstands something he says it. If I misunderstand him he says it. Sometimes he says it because he cannot find the right words to use to make me understand what he needs me to understand. In English, “sorry” is an apology for something done wrong. In my son’s language it seems to be an apology for his struggles. I feel so badly for him because, no matter how patient I am with him, he seems to feel the need to apologize. I can’t seem to make him understand that he does not need to be sorry, that he is like a hero to me. He is living in a foreign country where he can barely speak the language and there is no need to apologize for the things he cannot help. Sometimes the language barrier from English to autism and back really stinks. Sometimes I wish I had an interpreter. 

If you liked this post you might like: Speaking Tate's Language or Loosing Language and Finding It


  1. This blog post takes me back to when we were working on potty training our autistic son. I found we were adding to the confusion by using pull-ups. "Push your pull-up down" or "Let's change your pull-up" would translate to him as "pull it up" he would stand there with a confused look on his sweet face tugging up on the sides of his pull-ups. We switched to regular underwear, while it was a very messy 6 long months, he finally potty trained.

  2. What I'm hearing a lot at the moment from my 5 year old mildly autistic son is "now I get it". Concepts have to be broken down into small manageable pieces for him, it can be a struggle for both of us, but he seems pleased with himself once he understands. I love the concept that autism has it's own language, it makes sense of why we can find it a struggle to understand each other and why I often have to act as interpreter for my him.

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  4. This is very insightful!
    While Tate says "Oh Sorry" mine uses "I understand" which he clearly doesn't. I think I'd prefer an apology than a false 'I know'. lol

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  6. I can say that you are a great mother and translator to your son, Lisa. What you're doing is not easy and it amazes me that you can understand him well. What he's going through is somehow difficult, because not everyone can understand him the way that you do, and that's why I'm glad that you’re not giving up on him. Just continue to be a great Mom and I'm sure he'll grow up to be a good Son. :-)

    Israel Oliver @ Atlas-Translations