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Sarai Pahla: Worthy of Love

Dr. Sarai Pahla is a multilingual medical translator, doctor and advocate for autism. She encourages all of us to embrace our differences and commit to love.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Sara Weiss and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Atibo Onen. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Twelve-year-old Sarai Pahla stood in the hallway of her middle school while kids around her chatted, laughed and held hands. Sarai did not quite understand how these close connections came to be. Was there some rulebook she missed that explained how to talk to people naturally and make friends? It seemed so easy for everyone else, when it was such a struggle for her.

Sarai was especially curious about boyfriends and girlfriends. She wanted a boyfriend, but she didn’t know how to make that happen. So she took a scientific approach, coming up with a list of criteria to help her decide which boy would be the right fit.

One day, a boy with long hair was grabbing books from his locker when Sarai approached him.

“Here,” she said, handing him a report she’d compiled with her findings.

“What’s this?” he said.

“Based on my excellent observations,” she said, “we would make a great ‘boyfriend and girlfriend partnership.’”

The boy clearly was not interested. “Um…no thanks,” he said.

Sarai stood there, baffled. Groups of kids passed her by, whispering and laughing. Sarai couldn’t understand it. She had done all the research. How could she have failed?

SHOW INTRO

I’m Atibo Onen. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.

On this episode, Dr. Sarai Pahla  — a multilingual medical translator, doctor and advocate for autism. She encourages all of us to embrace our differences and recognize that we’re all worthy of love.

[SEGMENT 1]

Sarai always felt different from others around her. Growing up in Zimbabwe and South Africa in the 1980s and 90s, Sarai suffered from a racist apartheid system where non-whites were regarded as second class citizens. As a girl who was Black, Sarai was treated terribly.

There were laws about where and how Black people were allowed to live, work, or even love! It was illegal for Sarai to go to certain areas like playgrounds, movie theaters, shopping malls, or beaches. Schools were segregated, and English was only taught in the white schools. But Sarai’s parents taught her English because they thought it was important for her future. So not only was Sarai treated horribly by a white supremacist society, she also sometimes felt like an outsider in her own community because people told her she was “too intelligent”.

Sarai felt different from most of her classmates in other ways, too. Social interactions were difficult for her. A simple conversation could be overwhelming — especially having to hold eye contact or say the right things.

Sarai preferred spending time alone or diving into books. She was curious about so many different subjects. In school, she excelled in mathematics, physics and biology. She was also fascinated by history — especially tales about the Holy Roman Empire.

And Sarai loved languages. She taught herself German, Japanese and Dutch. She even learned how to code, or write in a computer language. Still, when it came to communicating with her peers, that was a subject she just could not understand.

[SEGMENT 2]

After college, in 2005, Sarai earned a medical degree from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She was excited to work in medicine, which seemed like a natural fit that combined her love of math and science.

Working as a doctor was challenging. Sarai felt confident in her clinical skills to help patients, but she didn’t know how to express herself clearly. In high-stakes and stressful situations, she realized she didn’t just need to communicate medical facts, she was expected to give people reassurance and talk about feelings.

Sarai decided that she had to find another job that didn’t require her to be in a lot of social situations. She explored information technology and being a medical translator. Both of which felt rewarding, and yet, something was still missing.

The year was 2011 and Sarai was 29-years-old. As a self-employed medical translator, she could work out of her office at home. Which meant, she spent most days alone, eating her meals, working on her computer and playing video games in her spare time. Day after day, sunlight slipped across the floor as the hours passed. Sarai wished she could share this time with someone. They didn’t even have to interact that much, just someone who’d sit next to her, enjoying each other’s company without having to make eye contact. She was lonely.

One day, she decided she had to go out. But when she  reached for her keys, a layer of dust had formed on them. How much time had passed since she was last outside? She realized she’d gone over a week without leaving home. Something about this was not right.

She spoke to a friend about the social difficulties she was having. “There’s something wrong here, don’t you think?” Sarai asked.

Her friend listened calmly, kindly. And then she asked Sarai – was it possible she might have autism?

[SEGMENT 3]

Sarai’s first reaction was relief. She knew about the spectrum disorder caused by differences in the brain. People with autism often have difficulty with eye contact or social interaction. In fact, she had suspected this diagnosis in the past, but anytime she brought it up to people working in medicine they shooed her away.

“People didn’t think autism affected women,” Sarai has said. “And there was a perception that mental health issues didn’t occur in the Black or native population.”

Sarai was determined to find out more about autism and her own brain, even if that meant traveling around the world. In 2013, Sarai decided to move to a place with a stronger health care system and better treatment options. How about Germany? She’d always been fascinated by its history, and she could speak the language. So she packed up her belongings and hopped on a plane to Düsseldorf, a city on the banks of the Rhine. As she looked out at the sunlit horizon from her little window above the clouds, she felt jittery but full of hope.

Soon after landing, she met with doctors and what she suspected was confirmed. Sarai was diagnosed with autism. Suddenly, everything became clear. Maybe this was why she had such a difficult time finding a boyfriend or why she couldn’t connect with many people in group settings. The diagnosis gave her a new perspective, not only on herself, but on what other autistic people are facing. She had to share this knowledge.

Sarai applied to give a TEDx talk, which is a speech given by some of the most influential and accomplished artists, scientists and thinkers in the world. She wanted to share what it was like to live with autism and seek true connection with other people.

In November of 2017, Sarai stood up in front of an auditorium filled with scientists, scholars, and mathematicians — and countless more people watching online. Sarai spoke clearly and honestly about the challenges she faced. She encouraged everyone to appreciate the many ways the human mind can work.

And she was greeted with grateful applause.

[LEGACY]

Rebels, Sarai was not afraid to go on a journey across careers and continents to understand herself. And she continues to speak as an international autism advocate, educating people and sharing her vulnerability.

Rather than judging someone for being too different or antisocial, what if we took time to try understanding each other, just as Sarai does? That’s what we hope everyone will do for us, too, right?

We each have unique ways of communicating what’s in our heads and in our hearts. And with rebels like Sarai leading the way, we can learn how to listen and respond with love, which is one language everyone can share.

CREDITS:

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

This episode was narrated by ME, Atibo Onen. It was produced and directed by Deborah Goldstein, with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media.

The story was written by Sara Weiss and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. Our executive producers were Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe.

Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible! Until next time, staaaay rebel!