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BlogNew Organizing Project (NOP)

NOP3 | Stigma of Learning Disabilities in Asian American Community

By November 26, 2012No Comments

By Jamie Kim | New Organizing Project blogger


Photo courtesy of Jamie Kim

A while ago, I attended Temple Grandin’s speaking engagement held in honor of disability history week at my college.  Temple Grandin is a recognized author, professor, and a consultant in animal sciences and the livestock industry.  Instrumental in improving quality of life for cattle through designing corrals that reduce stress of animals being led to slaughter, Grandin is also a fervent autism advocate.

Grandin was diagnosed with autism and labeled as “brain damage” when she was four years old in 1951.  Through persistent support from her family and mentors, she moved on to graduate from high school and went on to receive a bachelor and a doctorate degree in animal sciences.  At a time where neurological developmental disorders like Asperger syndrome and ADHD was not widely known, she beat the odds and strived towards her passion.  Inspired, I knew I wanted to write about stigma of neurological developmental disorders in the Asian American community.

Although U.S has relatively progressive dialogue on neurological developmental disorders, Asian Americans with these conditions are often the most misunderstood demographic by their parents and their communities.  Learning disabilities such as dyslexia are also neurological developmental disorders. Often the symptoms of Autism and ADHD manifest themselves as the symptoms associated with learning disabilities.  Their parents often mistaken their child’s condition as mental retardation.  Those with a learning disability are “identified” as individuals who have an average or above average IQ but have difficulty in a specific area.” Therefore, the individual with learning disability may seem to be “normal” and appear to their parents as not trying their best.

Ji-Mei Chang of San Jose State University, researched a group of Chinese limited-English proficient parents from a working class background in the inner city with children enrolled in special education programs.  Many responded that their children needed more “one on one” tutorial and some indicated it was because their children were lazy. The research showed that, “these parents did not seem to understand the nature of their child’s learning disability.”

Dr. Lusa Lo, an assistant professor University of Massachusetts-Boston “In Asia, there was hardly any such thing as special ed. Here, the parents are so grateful for speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, transportation for a disabled child. They don’t realize that here, they are entitled to much more,” Lo says.  In Asia, once you were identified as be “disabled,” often you were written off as having no potential for success.  Also, the “saving face” phenomenon was prevalent, with parents concerned about the public reputation of their family and the community they represent contributing to parents not recognizing their children’s learning impairment.

Ultimately, the purpose in recognizing neurological developmental disorders is not become overprotective of the individual, but to confront the conditions that interfere with their everyday life and focus on creating the life the individual wants to have. If a dyslexic child has hard time learning, he needs more one on one time with reading.  If ADHD child has problems with time management and organization, he will need more time to master that.

The most memorable remark that personally struck with me that night was that autism was not her identity.

I am a scientist and college professor first and a person with autism second. Autism is an important part of me, and I do not want to change, but my career is my identity, not autism…. I get concerned when young kids come up to me and all they want to talk about is “their autism.” I would rather talk about their interest in animals, science, or history. They are becoming their label.

Grandin admits she was lucky to have had supportive mentors and family throughout her education, who recognized her talents in the sciences and the arts.  While neurological development disorders have their setbacks, we have to focus on the positives. Some of the world’s greatest minds had these conditions.  Einstein and Wright brothers were known to have had ADHD. Steven Spielberg has said “to escape dyslexia through filmmaking.” Working with what appear to be a weakness, parents should support the potential in their children.

It is understandable that immigrant Asian American families, especially those facing cultural and financial barriers, often have a hard time understanding neurological developmental disorders and getting the help that they need.  We also have to remember that there are varying degrees of learning disabilities and some children may have multiple conditions to address. Although, not all individuals may be as successful as Temple Grandin or Einstein, what matters is that our community recognizes their child’s condition and provide a supportive environment in order to be ready for the real world.