Life of an expat mom with an autistic child in Sweden

Expat interviews
  • Varmland, Sweden
Published on 2020-09-23 at 08:35 by Francesca
Steffy comes from Naples. She left Italy in 2016 to settle in Sweden with her children. An avid blogger, Steffy is also the founder of a non-profit organisation that takes care of children with special needs. She talks to about her everyday life and challenges as an expat mom of an autistic child.

Can you please introduce yourself briefly?

I'm from Naples, which is in the south of Italy. I left Italy in July 2016 for Sweden with many suitcases and, above all, a lot of hope. The beginning was challenging. I came here with my five children, four daughters and a boy who was only five back then. Their dad accompanied us, but he returned to Italy after only a week.

What brought you to Sweden?

My aim was to ensure a better future for all my children. Even if they had done their higher studies in Italy, as I could afford it for all of them, they probably would have ended up unemployed. Sooner or later, they would have looked for opportunities elsewhere, so I made this choice for us all. You could think it's too soon, but I'm convinced that it's worth it.

What was your first impression of Sweden on your arrival?

It was all calm and silent. For the first year, we lived in a small village in Skåne. It seemed like the perfect place for my children as they were able to move anywhere freely and safely, even at night. We had peace of mind.

Did you find it hard to adapt to the lifestyle in Sweden?

Obviously, it was challenging, especially when it comes to the language barrier. Today, I speak Swedish pretty well, but it wasn't easy at first. Besides, it wasn't easy to socialise with the Swedes who are generally introverted. They are very kind, indeed, but it's actually hard to bond with them.

What do you do for a living?

I am a choreographer and a dance teacher, but I haven't really had the opportunity to practice here in Sweden. The dance culture is not very present here. So I resumed my studies. I learned Swedish as well as other fields that might help me fit into the Swedish labour market. I have also worked in schools on several occasions, mostly thanks to my expertise with children with special educational needs.

What are the formalities to be completed when moving to Sweden?

First of all, find accommodation and get a lease contract. Having an employment contract is a plus. Nationals of certain countries must also provide a duly completed form to be able to benefit from healthcare through ASL. However, this procedure is quite complicated. Once you have gathered all these documents, you have to go to the Skatteverket (Swedish tax agency) to get a Swedish tax number. Without that, you don't exist in Sweden.

You have been living in Sweden for several years now. What advice would you give to people planning to move there?

I highly recommend coming here with some savings. The early days can be quite difficult. Then you have to learn the language, no matter how hard it seems. Also, try to land a job contract as soon as you arrive or even before travelling to Sweden.

Did the COVID-19 crisis have an impact on your professional and daily life in Sweden?

Sweden has not dealt with the health crisis like other countries. There was no lockdown, but social distancing was observed from the start. For my part, I had to put my dance classes on hold. We had to self-isolate as we have a high-risk person at home.

You are the author or a blog and several Facebook groups. What are the different themes that you address on each of them?

I have always been an avid writer and reader, and wanted to share my passion. For now, I revel in various artistic activities that I share on my blogs and my Facebook pages. “10 minutes with Steffy” is my personal blog on which I discuss various personal and less personal topics, which I hope are quite useful to my followers. “Blueyogadancer” is a blog about my yoga-related activity. I also have an Instagram account with the same name. “Empathy for Children” is a page that describes the activities of the non-profit organisation I founded in Sweden in 2018 to try to help families having children with special needs. “I run with Dayson / Io corro con Dayson”, is the one I'm the most attached to, and on which I write about the challenged of being the mom of a child with special needs in Sweden, and our strength. Every day is a new day.

What is the objective of this NGO that you founded?

Empathy for Children is a non-profit organisation that provides free activities to children with special needs, especially autistic children. We organise different types of activities for neurotypical children, including craft markets, food markets, etc.

How is Sweden's approach to autism? Is there any support for children with special needs at the school level?

I must admit that my first experience with the Swedish system was far from being the best. I left Italy because I could no longer afford my son's therapy. So I was hoping to find a solution here, but everything was surprisingly different. In Sweden, each region has its own ways, and the different municipalities have a unique approach. We lived in Skåne for almost four years, then we relocated to Värmland. These two regions are quite poor when it comes to the therapeutic approach, but I'm aware that things are different in Stockholm. But this is not the crucial point because schooling is real therapy. The Swedish education system provides relaxing breaks in a safe environment, clean and suitable materials, pleasant outdoor spaces, and various activities regularly. All of this constitutes therapy for an autistic child. On the academic side, it hasn't been easy, but my son was lucky enough to have a supportive teacher, and this allowed him to become exceptionally autonomous. Of course, all that glitters is not gold. Parental support, which is fundamental, must also be taken into account. My son hasn't been in therapy for six years now, he reads and writes in two languages, enjoys math, and has a higher digital visualisation ability than most children of his age. Unfortunately, he still has some language and social issues. But I'm sure things are going to change soon, with his class of only nine children and a very present and loving teacher.

Is there any advice you would like to give to other parents with children with special needs?

Don't think that moving abroad is the only answer to your issues. As I pointed out, not everything has gone as planned for us in Sweden. I firmly believe that beyond places, cultures and nations, it's people who change the world. If you are lucky enough to meet the right person at the right time, your stay will be more pleasant. With autism, you live one day at a time, with few projects but a lot of work every moment.

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