Autism as a ‘culture-bound syndrome’
While thinking about anthropological approaches to health and illness, here is a piece of the cross-cultural understandings of what we in the West call ‘autism’.
Although autism was first defined and described in 1934, it took 40 years for it to be officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a disorder other than childhood psychosis. In France, as recently as 2004, autism was seen as a form of schizophrenia rather than a developmental disorder. Today in South Korea, children with autism are frequently diagnosed with a condition called Reactive Attachment Disorder — often associated with child neglect — while among the Efe pygmies in Central Africa, a child who begins exhibiting autistic behaviour is understood to be under attack by the family’s ancestors and is sent to another village far away where he will not have contact with blood relatives.
These are some of the startling facts gleaned from Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, by Roy Richard Grinker, professor of anthropology and director of the George Washington Institute of Ethnographic Research. Grinker’s interest in the disorder is professional as well as personal. His daughter Isabel was diagnosed in 1994, and his warmth and compassion for autistic children and parents alike shines through this immensely readable and informative narrative that looks closely at how culture influences the ways we understand, classify and treat autistic-spectrum disorders.
I read this article a while ago but it came back to me in a flash when I heard that the Korean perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre was diagnosed with autism, but only after he migrated to the USA. Seems that his personality was otherwise characterised in the Korean context — I wonder if he was diagnosed with ‘Reactive Attachment Disorder’? What I find interesting here is that the different understandings of a particular cluster of behaviours reveals cultural differences between different scientific traditions; the supposedly universal discourses of science prove to be culturally relative after all.