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How Autism is Perceived in Different Cultures

October 11, 2021


A traveler shares her perspectives on how autism is understood by people across the globe. 

A traveler shares her perspectives on how autism is understood by people across the globe. 

Due to the nature of my work, I have been fortunate to visit over 70 countries. I have also lived in four different countries on three continents. 

You can read about a destination, however, an actual visit is the only way to get a true gauge of a place. Even then, a visit is only a small glimpse into the lives of those who actually live there. 

Autism across the globe: a traveler’s perspective

Autism in Singapore 

As someone who grew up with brothers on the spectrum, my experience with others’ perception of autism may shock you. Most of the first-world countries I’ve been to have been far less accepting of people on the spectrum than third-world countries. 

I was born and raised in Singapore by a Singaporean mother. As much as I love Singapore—and I am proud of the incredible things my nation has achieved—I am ashamed of their human rights record. Singapore has improved immensely, but still has a long way to go. 

From my experience of Singapore, it seems your life as a human being is valued based on how much money you can earn for your country over your lifetime. Therefore, if you have a disability and are unable to work, then your life is considered to have no value. This is absolutely awful.

I strongly believe that everyone on the autism spectrum should be considered to have a “differabilty” (a different ability) rather than a disability. Each and every one of us has a wonderful role to play in society. The sooner every country gets on board with this, the better our world can become. 

A redeeming factor for Singapore is their early intervention. All children with special needs are able to attend school with their mothers from six months of age. I believe this gives children a good start in life and an opportunity to develop their individual and unique skills.

Autism in Australia

The next country I want to talk about is Australia. I lived in Australia for 15 years. During this time, I interacted with many people with disabilities. 

In Australia, there is some stigma attached to people on the spectrum. I found they often get labeled as “weird”, which is hurtful—but Australians aren’t known for their tact so it isn’t surprising. 

The thing that shocked me the most was that anyone who has any kind of disability and is abandoned at birth (which happens quite frequently) is then sent to a retirement home. This means young individuals with disabilities are sometimes living in care facilities for the aged, just because no other facilities are available to them. First-world countries need to be doing better, period.

Autism in the island nation: Fiji 

On the other hand, it gives me joy to talk to you about the wonderful island nation of Fiji in the South Pacific. 


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To date, Fiji is the place where my younger brother Scott, who has Down’s syndrome and autism, received the best treatment from locals. This was a really positive experience for us, as our own father couldn’t accept Scott and consequently left our family. 

As hard as it was to survive financially when my father left us, it was the best thing he ever did. For any single parents out there, you can do this and you are stronger than you realize. You do not need anyone in your life who isn’t going to appreciate your child’s worth. 

The villagers in Fiji, living in straw huts, are what Western society would consider very poor. They are, however, incredibly rich in love and inclusion. 

Anyone who is born in Fiji and is different or has special needs is considered a gift from God. Whether you believe in God or not, the fact that your child is considered a gift is amazing. They celebrate your child, and they band together in the village to look after one another. 

The old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” definitely applies here. It was an absolutely wonderful experience to spend time with the Fijians. My family had a very similar experience when they visited Indonesia. My brother Scott was an infant and we could see that the Indonesian people’s love and inclusion knows no bounds.

Finally…

So how can this be, first-world countries falling short of third-world countries in their inclusion of anyone with special needs? It seems as though more developed countries tend to focus on what they consider to be “wrong” with you, while less developed countries focus on what is special about you. There needs to be a major shift in focus. 

No two people are the same. This needs to be a wake-up call. We need to be doing better. I don’t have the answers; all I know is that love heals. The world needs inclusion, compassion, understanding and, most of all, love. 

How is autism perceived in your culture? Thank you for reading and as always, please do not hesitate to reach out to me for any comments, advice, and tips.

This article was featured in Issue 124 – Autism Around the World

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