On being Asian, Chinese and Autistic

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.
Cat logic: If I fit, I sit

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.

2. Compliments

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.


Lost in Blah Blah Land: It is not a simple instruction if it is not clear and specific

This happens just a few days ago between me and my part-time employer. I want to throw away this trash before the start of another week.

#1: “Pls look this article up and save a pdf copy”

I received an email with the above instructions. I was expecting to see a citation of an article but the attachment was a jpg image of an article published in a Singapore newspaper. There is no mention of other articles in the attachment, in other words, the attachment is the article. Why would she want me to look up an article she has already got? If she wants a pdf copy, why doesn’t she just print the jpg image and scan it to pdf?  It doesn’t make sense. I did think about replying to ask her to be more specific but on the other hand, it seems foolish to ask about an apparently simple instruction. In the end, I did what the instructions said literally, I look up for the newspaper article from the electronic database, save a pdf copy of it and send it back.

#2: “Could you please find a pdf of the original printed page? We need the page reference etc for citation.”

Ok, so the pdf copy of the newspaper article that was downloaded from the electronic database wasn’t what she had in mind. Now I’m even more confused. What do you mean by the “original printed page”? It is a newspaper article from Singapore. How am I supposed to get the original newspaper from Singapore? Did she want me to get a physical copy of the newspaper? Did she want me to ask my friends and family in Singapore? If that is the case, why didn’t she just say so? Besides, the attachment she sent is already an image of the original printed page. In the end, I print out the jpg image, scan it into pdf and send it back. Of course, this doesn’t make sense. In fact, none of it makes sense (the original  instruction (#1) didn’t refer to the page reference either). I probably annoyed her and made her think I was trying to be deliberately difficult.

#3: “There is no indication as to page number in the image you attached.  They are the same as what I sent.  Could you find the page number – as I said, we need this for citation.”

Now I admit, I didn’t pay much attention to the part about page reference because it wasn’t in the original instruction and it isn’t necessary nowadays to cite the page reference for a newspaper article especially if you have an online source. Her response still doesn’t answer my query although by this stage it seems quite clear that she wants a physical copy of the newspaper in which case, why can’t she just say so in the first place? Due to frustration I replied to say that I’m sorry I couldn’t locate the original.

#4: “Go to the XXX Public Library and photocopy the hard copy”

Now this is what I call a clear and specific instruction although my first reaction was one of terror because of the thought of making a trip to the busy central business district during the weekend at such a short notice. Why can’t she just tell me this from the beginning? How difficult is it to give a specific instruction? I admit I failed to check the public library records, I take the blame for that but it is apparent she knows where to locate it, how difficult is it to tell me so?

#5: “No need to go to the public library now.  ABC has found the page reference.​  We have done it ourselves.”

Whoa, is the last sentence necessary? Is it necessary to make the divide between us? Strictly speaking, you didn’t do it yourself, another colleague has done it, don’t claim credit for what you didn’t do. Besides, do you not remember our engagement is part-time? This was exactly what you told me when I sought your help after finding myself in a perilous financial situation several months ago thanks to you. Moreover, I wasn’t prepared to go to the public library for that matter or anywhere else in a short notice other than within the campus vicinity because of my anxiety issues but I won’t blame you for that since you don’t know I’m autistic.

Trash disposed. Lesson learnt: It is not a simple instruction if it is not clear and specific. Have a good week 🙂



Am I sick?

By Friday, I’m usually on the point of explosion. I’m exhausted, frustrated and overwhelmed after a week of repressing my emotions and temper. Despite having many ideas, I am having difficulties structuring my thoughts and to write coherently so the way I’m going to do it is to type a transcript of an imagined conversation with a fictitious character, Sosighewwty (so-sigh-eww-ty).

Sosighewwty: Are you sick?
Me: No
Sosighewwty: Can you work?
Me: Yes
Sosighewwty: Can you work under pressure?
Me: I try my best
Sosighewwty: Can you work under tight deadlines?
Me: I try my best
Sosighewwty: Can you work as a team?
Me: Yes… if instructions are clear
Sosighewwty: Can you communicate well?
Me: Can you? I think communication goes both ways.
Sosighewwty: Can you work in a noisy environment?
Me: …
Sosighewwty: Can you handle the phones ringing?
Me: The phone ring is really loud and piercing.
Sosighewwty: … and people walking about, whispering, talking, discussing about work, chattering?
Me: I really hate it when people talk especially when they do so at the same time. It is also very annoying when people suddenly break into a loud laughter.
Sosighewwty: So let me ask you again, can you work?
Me: … can I work from home?
Sosighewwty: No you can’t, we don’t want to create a precedent.
Me: (thinking about my daily walk along heavily polluted road and the above challenges) I’m starting to feel sick. I think I need to see a doctor.
Sosighewwty: What’s wrong?
Me: I am autistic.
Sosighewwty: Don’t be silly, you can’t get sick leave from being autistic.
Me: No of course. I mean I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. My autism means I’m hypersensitive to sounds. The environment makes me anxious. My head is about to explode. I’m depressed.
Sosighewwty: Are you on medication?
Me: No.
Sosighewwty: You need to be on medication to get a sick leave.
Me: Let me get this straight. I am not allowed to work from home despite being capable of working full time but you will excuse me from work if I get sick leave for my depression?
Sosighewwty: Yes. This is pretty much how I work, or for that matter how any society works.
Me: Very well…I think you are more sick than I am.

Directions: Repeat above conversation at least 10 times daily. For better anxiety and depression effect, repeat 100 times daily.

Take a rest, go to sleep, dream of paradise (I know I just shared this song in my last post but the official video just came up this week. When it seems that no one close around understands you, you find comfort in song(s) that captures your thoughts and takes you on a journey into the woods and outer space searching for the ultimate peacefulness.) Have a good weekend. 

Featured image:

Keep walking

This is where I was a year ago today, my first solo overnight hike in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Lately, I’ve been thinking how much further I can walk. I just keep walking round and round in circles, I don’t have a direction, I’m tired. Tomorrow is another week, I dread returning to work, I hate not being able to do anything to advance the interests of the minority, I hate it when my needs are not being taken seriously or considered less important, I hate being helpless. Don’t mind me, I’m just tired. Have a good week.

Paradise, Daniel Trakell

Tired eyes and thoughts that scatter, I’ve been so restless for a while
Lost the course with no direction, Missed the target by a mile
While I dream, I dream of when the days of holding back, And all this talk can cease
Oh I dream, About a place where time it goes to rest, And we can be at peace

Ooh paradise

Roads that curve and bridge too narrow, For the both of us to fall
Water seed and soil too shallow, For anything to grow at all
So I dream, Dream of when the days of holding back, And all this talk can cease
Oh I dream, About a place where time it goes to rest, And we can be at peace

Happy Autistic Appreciation Day

My new job has given me plenty of ideas to write about, unfortunately, it doesn’t leave me plenty of time to write them down. The biggest challenge is and continues to be the sensory environment. I had a bad day last Friday, in addition to my frustration with the continued stigmatisation of mental health issues, I had to deal with a group of small talk addicts who were talking behind my desk while I was trying to work, my tolerance level reached a limit I had to step out of the office to calm myself down. What can I do when people just can’t shut up? It has been nearly 2.5 months since I started this new job. Previously, I mentioned about a dreaded company hiking trip scheduled for October. Much to my relief, it wasn’t mandatory. It took place on a weekday Friday and most of my colleagues went while I chose to return to a deserted office. Henry Thoreau once said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” I said (with apologies to nature),

I would rather sit on an office chair and work by myself, than be crowded on a hilltop.”

Truth or dare?

My colleagues do not know that I’m autistic. I don’t intent to hide it but I don’t talk about it openly either. Since I started, I’ve been contemplating if I should tell my boss that I’m autistic, and if so, when and how. Obviously, there are risks involved. I’m not talking about the risk of getting fired. I would refrain from disclosing my autism if it was an interview because no matter what the law says, it is highly unlikely I can prove that my disclosure has prevented me from getting the job. It is a different story when it comes to disclosing after getting a job. The law may protect me from getting fired but an uncooperative employer who wants to get rid of me can do what s/he wants legally, knowing what my trigger is, to make my life as difficult as it can be to such extent I quit. Besides, do I really want to spend all my time and money on pursuing a claim against an uncooperative employer? It is just going to take a toll on me. The part of me that is against disclosure wants to challenge myself that I can survive in a neurotypical world without special accommodation, the other part of me that is for disclosure is tired of the continued marginalisation of autistic and neurodivergent individuals. Truth is revealing that I’m autistic and/or asking for special accommodation is no less challenging than pretending to be normal and that I’m actually doing a disservice to autism awareness by choosing to remain silence, or the more so since I now work in the area of mental health. However, I am still wary of revealing my diagnosis to others given my previous experience. This is actually the risk I’m concerned about, the risk of stigmatisation as opposed to the risk of getting fired.  I don’t want to hear another, “you don’t look autistic”, “oh, I’m sorry”, “but its noisy everywhere”. I’ve got to avoid my previous mistake and do it differently this time, this means not waiting until my stress and anxiety gets the better of me.

I’ve been waiting for a suitable opportunity to tell my boss. A few colleagues have recently relocated to another office, leaving some empty seats in the old office. A few of them has expressed a wish for new seating arrangement. I thought this would be an opportune time for me to bring up my issue with sensory needs. I wrote to my boss over the weekend and told him my preference for a quieter seat (‘quieter’ as opposed to ‘quiet’ because there is really no such thing as a quiet seat in the office). Monday came. I arrived as early as usual before the others. I had a quick chat with boss. I explained my need for a quiet environment. I told him I have Asperger’s Syndrome.

I was nervous but it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. I have actually rehearsed the conversation several times in my mind over the past few weeks. It didn’t play out exactly as I’ve rehearsed but it didn’t came out too bad. I told him I’ve been waiting for a right opportunity because I want to present it in a more positive light as opposed to the negative way in which autism is typically portrayed. I didn’t want to wait until things got out of control for that would only increase the stigma, which is what I want to avoid. I also wanted to avoid that heavy atmosphere that comes with disclosing when you are at the brink of a meltdown. I’m also glad to say there is no “you don’t look autistic” or “I’m so sorry”. What I got instead was, “how did you get through it all?”

At the end,  I was given to choose a seat, which I thought offers the most privacy. Sound wise, as I’ve said, there isn’t really a quiet seat in the office. I did also ask if I could work from home instead. I’m only asking the possibility of working from home once a week and given my sensory needs, I don’t think I’m asking too much at all. However, my boss did not want to create an exception for fear that others might use it as an excuse to not coming in or coming in late. I was admittedly disappointed but being autistic, I could empathise with him (nope, you hear me right, being autistic, I could empathise) and I didn’t want to put him in a difficult situation. Even when asking for special accommodation, I have my fairness principles. (Besides, when I was given something urgent to work on last month, I took the courage to ask if it was ok for me to leave work early so I could work from home, to which he said yes.) After that, when I replayed the conversation we had this morning, I wanted to kick myself for in his reply to my request, I could have make use of his response to illustrate that the demands on us to fit in is exactly the challenge and stigma individuals on the spectrum face on a day-to-day basis. But alas, I missed this great opportunity to talk about stigma, my brain is slow to respond, as always.

I won’t say it is a breakthrough nor an achievement but certainly, I have a new appreciation for individuals on the spectrum, at least I hope my boss is appreciative of my efforts to keep the office in ‘order’. The warriors, the fighters, the rule enforcers, the heroes who give in to the demands of the neurologically typical to facilitate the orderly function of the NT world despite getting nothing or little in return. We need Autism Awareness. We also need Autistic Appreciation for without these individuals, I don’t think the NTs could engage freely in their small talk and preoccupation with socialisation. Today, I’d like to give myself a pat on the back.

Every Autistic is a Hero

Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash