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Jane, Johannesburg

My name is Jane. I’m an English-born expat currently living in Johannesburg, but as with most things in my life, it is a little more complicated than that. My first expat experience was living in Paris and working as a teaching assistant at a lycee. I was only there for a year, but it gave me a taste of living overseas. Seven years ago I fell in love with my American diplomat husband, and we haven’t stopped moving since!

My first child was born not long after we moved to Luxembourg. As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight. If my daughter seemed a little different from other kids, I put it down to the fact that she didn’t speak the language. We made plans for our next move to La Paz, Bolivia, and I gave birth to my son two months before we left Luxembourg.In between assignments, we returned to the US for language training. The move hit my two-year-old daughter hard, she was unable to sleep, and her behaviour steadily worsened. Now that she was spending time with other English-speaking children, I began to notice more and more differences. She had an incredible vocabulary for a child her age, but was unable to engage in a conversation. She liked repeating the same phrases over and over, and often seemed to ignore me when I called her name. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew we needed answers before moving again.

After an evaluation with a speech-language practitioner, we realized that the particular social communication challenges our daughter was exhibiting were symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Within weeks we had a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. At the same time, we quickly learned how much more challenging an expat life would be when combined with special needs parenting- Bolivia didn’t have the appropriate services for our daughter at the time, and my husband’s assignment there was cancelled.

We spent the next two years living in the US, learning as much as we could about her condition, and planning what we would do next. I found our time living there very challenging. I was used to occasional feelings of loneliness and homesickness as an expat, but nothing prepared me for the isolation of special needs parenting. When my son was also found to have developmental delays, I missed having family close at hand. We questioned whether this lifestyle would work for us, or if it might be wiser for my husband to quit his job and bring more stability to our family. At around this time I found a yahoo group of other special needs parents in the Foreign Service. They shared their experiences, and I was convinced that with the right preparation, another overseas move could be a positive one for our family.

We researched the schools and services of virtually every country in the world! By the time my husband accepted an offer to go to Johannesburg, I’d already made contact with schools and therapists here. I found ways to prepare the children as best I could for so big a move, and to my surprise, they proved themselves to be incredibly resilient. Special needs or not, they are true third culture kids! It wasn’t easy to find the right schools, but after six months here, we’re delighted with their progress.

Living in South Africa is proving to be a wonderful experience for all of us. Johannesburg seems similar enough to both the UK and the US that this is the first time we haven’t really felt culture shock following a move. It is an adjustment seeing such extremes of wealth and poverty so close together, and we are continually vigilant about security given the crime rates. Having said that, for the most part life in the northern suburbs is very similar to what we’ve experienced in Europe and North America. Food and shopping are to our tastes and have exceeded our expectations; overall the cost of living is slightly lower than living in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Having a housekeeper has definitely eased the domestic burden as well.

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We’ve found that South Africa is generally a family-friendly culture. Even though our kids might at times behave unusually, we feel a warm welcome when out in public. Being overseas means that we are once again part of the diplomatic community, and everybody has been incredibly accepting and supportive of our family. We couldn’t be happier with our current post, and will enjoy two more years here before moving on

I’m the first to admit that our life can be challenging at times, but the expat experience is about being flexible and adapting to changes – nothing could have prepared us better for special needs parenting. Life isn’t exactly how I’d planned it, but I wouldn’t change a thing- other than the country we call home every two or three years!

Please visit Jane's blog Spectrummy Mummy to not only learn more about expat life in South Africa, but also the challenges faced by parents who have children with autism spectrum disorder and the particular challenges of special needs parenting for expats. You may also contact Jane by email: spectrummymummy@gmail.com

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