When You're Sick But Can't Speak the Language

Reflections on my experience, and how it relates to autism.

Posted Oct 26, 2018

Recently, I was invited to give a talk in Monterrey, Mexico, about language learning in autism. I left on October 17th, and was scheduled to give my talk on the 20th. I was excited to talk about neuroscience, early education, and language development, and to meet educators and psychologists from another country.

I arrived on the night of the 17th, and was immediately hit by a frightening realization: Very few people spoke English, and I only speak a bit of Spanish. I didn't realize how strange it would feel not to be able to communicate effectively, but I saw it as an opportunity to practice my Spanish and get to know a new place. I went to a restaurant, stumbled through ordering (with the help of a kind woman who realized my Spanish wasn't quite up to the task), and went back to my hotel room. 

But things did not go as planned. I woke up the next morning and instantly knew something was wrong. I felt weak and had a headache. I chalked it up to mild jet lag and not sleeping well. I showered, ordered breakfast, and tried to distract myself. I was worried that I couldn't manage to eat, but thought I just needed to wait for my appetite to come back. I met some teachers from Monterrey, and headed off to the conference venue.

Within the first hour of the conference, I realized that something was still not right. My eyes kept closing, and I felt like I was going to pass out even though I was sitting down. I kept getting a whole-body flush, and couldn't keep my eyes open or focus on people who were speaking. I tried to figure out where the teacher was who I had met earlier. When I couldn't see her or figure out where she was, I started to feel a little nervous. How was I going to communicate that I felt sick, or that I thought I needed to go back to the hotel to lay down? Nervousness made me feel even more dizzy, and I decided to try to find someone else to talk to. 

I found a woman who I had spoken to earlier in the day and who I knew spoke English. I told her I needed to rest, and that I didn't feel well. She took me to a nurse's station, where they took my blood pressure, asked me questions through a translator, and gave me medication that seemed like an Advil/Tylenol hybrid. Despite everyone being kind, I was terrified of taking medication that I wasn't familiar with, from a bottle I couldn't read. 

I got back to the hotel, and tried to lay down to rest. I was shaking, hot, weak, and nauseous. I began to panicWhat if something is really wrong? What if I pass out? What if I have to go to the hospital and can't speak with anyone because my Spanish is bad? How will they know who I am, or how to contact my husband? I texted the woman who had been helping me, and told her I needed to see a doctor. A doctor came to the hotel, but she didn't speak English so we were speaking through a third party. They wanted to give me a shot, but no one knew how to translate what was in it, or potential side effects. The translator said they could get me any antibiotic, so I should tell them which one I wanted. Panic kicked in again. How do I know what antibiotic I need? What if I choose wrong, or there's some kind of drug interaction? I'm not qualified to make this type of decision!

At this point I realized I needed to leave ASAP to fly home. That meant not giving my talk and abandoning the conference. I felt terrible, but it became apparent that I was in no state to even sit up for long periods of time, much less give a talk. I made my flight home for the next morning, and was home by Friday at 2 p.m. All said and done, I was in Mexico for less than 48 hours. 

So what does this have to do with ASD, or with my work? Well, after almost one week home and a full course of antibiotics (turns out I had at least two infections), I feel like I have a new understanding of some complex issues. I want to talk about two of them here. 

  1. Being in a place where you cannot communicate is absolutely terrifying. I cannot emphasize this enough. But a foreign country isn't the only place where people have a hard time communicating. People with ASD sometimes can't speak "our" language. They may not be able to communicate using words that we (i.e., professionals, parents, teachers) understand. So what do they do? They scream, they cry, or engage in unwanted behaviors. And after last week, if there wasn't a translator or anyone else to help me, I would have resorted to screaming, or throwing things, or engaged in other behaviors. Even with a translator I was crying by the end.  
  2. I felt alone, scared, and was having a hard time coping with my own health concerns. But I knew that if things got really bad, I could always book a flight home. When I imagine living in another country where I was constantly afraid of getting sick and not being able to communicate my needs (or the needs of my children/family members), it seems insurmountable. SEARCH often sees children for autism screenings whose parents do not speak English. Therefore, they cannot communicate with me directly—we speak through a PhD student who is bilingual. But consider how scary it must be to rely on a translator to speak with your child's clinician. The prospect is horrible. 

My experience was relatively minor, and I am feeling much better after less than one week of being home and taking antibiotics. And anything that helps me take the perspective of children with autism and their families is worth it, even if it took 36 hellish hours in Mexico. 

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