When I travel to somewhere new, I prefer to immerse myself with the local people and culture, it doesn’t make sense that I should travel a long way to hang out with people from where I’m from. There were times where people found out I came from Singapore then told me they knew someone else from the same place and could introduce us, I would smile and muttered to myself, “thanks but no thanks.” I didn’t travel all the way to meet someone from where I came from, in fact, that’s the reason I left. In a similar vein, I avoid people from my culture or race, in particular, I try to stay out of my way from the stereotypical tourists who travel around in big groups. Is that discrimination? I admit, I discriminate loud and noisy people.
Let me clarify further, I do make friends with people from my place of birth and people of my culture and race, the point I’m making is I don’t seek them out intentionally, I won’t look out for groups like “Singaporeans in Hong Kong” or “Chinese in the UK”, we’ll meet when we meet. I think there is a mistaken assumption that I would be pleased to see a fellow Singaporean or someone from my own culture in a foreign place, no I don’t. I don’t feel a special connection with them nor do I feel closer or more comfortable with them simply because we share the same culture or place of birth. Other than my introverted personality, I venture to think that this is due to the fact that being autistic means growing up with the feeling that I’m a society outcast, I don’t fit into the culture I was born with. This has undoubtedly contributed to my animosity and avoidance of people from or similar to my culture as their continued presence serves as a constant reminder that I don’t fit. You could say it’s a form of escapism but I left because I don’t identify with and I don’t want to be seen as belonging to that part of group or culture.
I remembered reading a comment in an autistic group forum that Japan would be a great place for autistics. The person making the comment was from a Western culture although I can’t remember where exactly. Personally I would disagree with the general statement that Japan is a great place for autistics, I believe this is an issue of personal preference. It could be, as Prof Tony Attwood suggested in his seminars that some autistics prefer the Japanese culture because in Japan, you don’t need to make physical contact when you greet someone, unlike some Western or European culture where people kiss each other on the cheek, which could be a problem for autistic individuals with sensory sensitivities. If you are an autistic that comes from a culture that places huge importance on the making of eye contact, you would likely resent and prefer another culture that doesn’t. Even though making eye contact is considered of less importance in Asian/Chinese culture, there are other discriminating features I have to live with. I will outline these below. You may argue that not all of the features outlined below are unique to the culture I’m referring to (Singaporean/Asian/Chinese). It is a fair point and I’m sure people of a different culture can also relate to what I say below, just as I can say the same thing for making eye contact, even though it is less talked of in my culture, it is still generally expected and especially so in the legal profession.
1. Academic excellence
I came across this article few months ago which talks about the generation gap between China’s millennials and their parents. It is something I can relate to even though I wasn’t born in China and I’m not a millennial, but we do share a similar Chinese culture.
Most Chinese either have a tiger mother or a tiger father. If I got a score of 95, my dad would ask why I did not get 97. If I got 97, he would ask me why could I not get 100. It is the typical Chinese education way — there is never the best, but better.
The Chinese culture is heavily grounded in family ties and academic success, children are expected to conform to the demands of parental expectations and to pursue academic excellence. I grew up in a society that has an education system and a family that is obsessed with grades. This is not good news when you don’t have the kind of autism that comes with an above average IQ or makes you a mathematical genius but rather, struggle with executive functioning and learning difficulties. In any event, it doesn’t matter which end of the autism spectrum I was because it is not even a word we heard of then.
From an early age, I was expected to conform to society’s expectations of what an ideal child is (academic excellence and diligence). I felt I was a mere subject of competition. The only ‘support’ I got was more tuition to improve my grades. Autism is often associated with having a special interest but I never quite remembered if I had any that I could call a special interest. Even if I do, there is a chance it would have been either discouraged by my parents due to it being a waste of time (reading novels) or it would have died down eventually as a result of too much academic stress.
Every so often I come across parents seeking advice in the autism group about what they can do to help ease their autistic children’s school and exam anxieties, many would say that it is not the grades they are concerned with, they don’t mind if their children did well or not in the exams, but rather, they just want their children to be happy. It really warms my heart when I read posts and comments like these because I didn’t have this kind of encouragement and understanding from my parents or the system and it is something I wish my parents would have said to me when I was a child.
Related to the point above, my dad never gave me a compliment no matter how well I performed. My dad’s response was very similar to the quote above, if I got 98, his response was “What happened? You just missed 100 by 2!” Since I was diagnosed with autism, I have wondered if my dad could be on the spectrum too given that it has been suggested that autistics are not very good at giving compliments but I’m not sure how much cultural factor plays a role in my dad’s case.
3. Expressing emotions
I know my dad loves me even though I disapprove of the way I was brought up. In my culture, people tend not to discuss their feelings openly, especially males. Even now, I don’t share my feelings with my family. Many individuals on the spectrum talk about the difficulties with identifying and describing emotions (alexithymia). This might affect how autism is presented in Asia.
4. Collectivistic culture
In a collectivistic culture, there is great pressure to conform to group norms. In the Chinese context, establishing a strong social network and relationship (guanxi) is of paramount to a successful and satisfying life. This may create a problem for an autistic trying to find employment or establishing a career. My mum thinks I’m cool (in a ‘displaying lack of interest’ sense as opposed to meaning excellent) because I do things and go places on my own. In my culture, people prefer to travel around in groups with companions, the more the merrier. When sad or down, their solution is to keep themselves occupied and find a company. This creates a problem for me not because I’m being left out, but rather I’m being surrounded by a community of social zealots who believe that I would love and should join in the fun with them. It is worse now that I work in the area of mental health and is being forced to share a confined working space with others. Everyday, I’m being presented with news and research about the benefits of social interaction, group exercises, communal activities, its almost like propaganda. Solitude? I don’t think its a word they know, let alone appreciate.
5. Social withdrawal syndrome / hikikomori
Social isolation is largely frowned upon in a collectivistic culture to the extent researchers have looked at or even propose that social withdrawal syndrome (yes, this is real) be recognised and admitted into the DSM. The term hikikomori, which means social withdrawal, originated from Japan as it was thought to be a culture-bound syndrome specific to the country. A more detailed definition is, ‘a condition where a youth withdraws into the home and does not participate in society for a period of over six months, of which a mental illness is not likely to be the primary case.’ This is how
ridiculous highly society values social interaction to the extent people who fall short of that requirement or who intentionally avoid social interactions are being perceived as people who have to be fixed (“I need a middle finger emoji“). Can you now understand why I disagree that Japan is a great place for autistics? Having been a recluse myself for a period of time, I could empathise with why some would choose a socially withdrawn lifestyle. I’m not saying that every socially withdrawn individual is autistic and vice versa. There are likely to be many complex reasons involved and not all who choose to withdraw from social interactions do so voluntarily, there may be some who are desperate to establish social interaction but do not know how and I agree these are the people who need help to get them out of their withdrawal state. What annoys me is the underlying assumption and inference that social withdrawal is necessarily bad or something to be fixed or cured. It comes back down to the issue of stigma and what follows below.
6. Autism awareness
For reasons mentioned above, I think the level of autism awareness in Asian culture is rudimentary. Rather than focusing solely on the problem of social withdrawal, I think research should look into the association with autism. Even though not everyone who withdraws from social interaction is autistic but there is reason to believe that for some, autism could be an underlying cause given it is a condition that has often been misdiagnosed and people may not be aware that they are autistic. If the society tries to fix their social withdrawal behaviour without addressing the root cause, I think the society is failing this group of population. Moreover, there aren’t many resources to support adults on the spectrum. When autism is talked about, it is usually targeted towards issues with autistic children as though autism only affects children and autistic adults don’t exist. (postscript Dec 6, 2017)
It’s been a long post, thanks for your patience. I will end with a quote from Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome which talks about the benefits of moving to a new culture:
“When in countries with a very different culture to my own, I am amazed at the number of people from English-speaking countries who have Asperger’s syndrome in the audience…Richard explained that if he makes a social error in Japan, his behaviour is acknowledged as being due to cultural differences, not a deliberate attempt to offend or confuse…Stephen Shore explained to me in an e-mail that ‘some people (me included) with Asperger’s syndrome enjoy visiting and even living in foreign countries for extended periods of time. Their differences and “social blindness” are then attributed to being in a foreign country rather than a mistaken assumption of wilful behaviour.”
Thanks for reading this far.