If you’re a South Asian young adult, you’ve probably been taught not to settle…with professional and academic endeavors at least! You’ve been taught how hard your parents worked to rebuild their lives as immigrants, and why you should work hard to be better and do better. These are great values, but what happens when we are compared to our South Asian friends and family, and not seen as good enough? What about when we learn differently than our peers and are not well supported at school, work, or home?
What is Neurodivergence?
Simply put, “neurodivergence” comes from the term “neurodevelopmental disorder” to promote these conditions as differences, not diseases. Examples include Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD). People with these conditions may struggle with tasks like time management, organization, reading and writing, concentration, and multitasking. Lack of educational support, therapy, medication, or other needed support, can cause low self-esteem, poor grades, depression, anxiety, social-emotional difficulties and more, that carry into adulthood.
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The Diagnostic Disparity
The National Center for Education Statistics reported that about 7.2 million students, from ages three to 21, received special education services from 2020 to 2021. That’s about 15 percent of public school students. Learning disability was the most commonly reported category among participants (33 percent). However, only eight percent of participants identified as Asian American — the lowest of all ethnic groups.
In 2010, the CDC reported that 370,011 people, aged six to 21, had autism. Dr. Veera Mookerjee, PhD., conducted a survey that showed many South Asian parents of autistic children never heard of autism in their home countries and therefore, struggled after the initial diagnosis. Language and cultural barriers made for an even bigger learning curve when communicating with American, English-speaking doctors.
Harmful Media Portrayals
The model minority myth refers to the false notion that certain groups of people are effortlessly successful. Often in the media, South Asians are portrayed as either nerdy class valedictorians, or IT and healthcare professionals as adults. In Never Have I Ever, the lead character, Devi, is a very high-achieving student, and her mother, is a healthcare worker and stereotypical, helicopter parent. In the new film Definition Please, the opening features a young Indian girl winning a spelling bee but goes on to challenge this notion using unaddressed mental health issues in the household.
It’s possible that school staff and clinicians see these stereotypes play out and unconsciously overlook South Asian students suffering internally. South Asian families with high standards may not accept that their child has learning challenges as they tend to link it to an inability to succeed, or even just survive.
In school, you may have seen “Special-Ed” kids get labeled as stupid, or a child with ADHD being a white male with seriously disruptive hyperactivity.
Dr. Pritika Gonsalves, a child psychologist in Mumbai, India, feels that neurodivergent children are bright, creative, “out-of-the-box thinkers” with untapped talents like extensive vocabulary, photographic memory, and visual learning abilities. She even knows learning disabilities can coexist with high IQs. Educating parents has been an uphill battle, and collectivistic culture and gender roles are some barriers.
One time, Dr. Gonsalves met the parents of a five-year-old who was recently diagnosed with autism. The parents believed the test was inaccurate because the child was not intellectually delayed. Dr. Gonsalves explained that not every autistic person has intellectual impairments, but the parents insisted that their child must “be just like other kids” and asked if he’ll “be completely okay.” She showed them that the child has some unique strengths and how therapy will help maintain them, which gave them relief. This was a male patient. Having these talks about daughters is even harder.
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“If parents are told that their daughter shows signs of autism, they’ll deny it or even stop talking to those people,” Dr. Gonsalves said. “I’ve seen that parents will spend money to treat their sons’ mental health, but with daughters, they get scared and hide it…because she won’t get marriage proposals and will be seen as a liability.”
Dr. Gonsalves believes in providing culturally-competent treatment, given the South Asian diaspora’s many cultures and religious beliefs. For example, she once met parents who thought their daughter had ADHD because a widow stood by their wedding rituals — something seen as a bad omen in their culture.
“Understanding culture helps me look beyond the symptoms, disprove myths, and provide the right therapy, without hurting cultural sentiments.”
Marisa Patel, an LMFT from California, said that ADHD is often diagnosed beyond childhood or not at all among females. Meanwhile, many boys have been misdiagnosed without proper assessment, based on things like “acting out.”
“Girls with ADHD are likely to be seen as quiet, well-behaved, and non-confrontational, when in reality, they’re crying for help internally. Additionally, many people don’t know that multiple ADHD types exist and take on their own form when someone’s cultural, familial and societal dynamics and expectations are added,” she said.
Patel has seen elders praise brown children for studying until they burn out for high grades, which furthers the myth that low grades are required for diagnosis. She also believes that the model minority myth can discourage one from expressing vulnerability and impedes Emotional Intelligence development.
“I’ve seen several adult clients in the past year seek support in processing their ADHD diagnosis. Most had conflicting feelings of shame and relief — the shame from feeling like they’ve let their families down, and the relief from gaining an explanation of struggles, previously described as lazy, misbehaved, or unintelligent.”
[Read Related: Supporting the Mental Health of South Asian Aunties and Uncles]
An Educator and Parent’s View
Tahira Benevilli has been an educator for almost two decades. In her job, Benevilli works with neurodivergent children from a strengths-based perspective. After seeing her two sons show signs of being neurodivergent since age three, she had to re-evaluate her own biases. She feels that the model minority myth creates a very limited view of success, especially with pressure on South Asians to pursue STEM careers.
“I’ve seen that learning differences are seen from a deficit perspective in our community. My children are expected to automatically be good at school, and any deviation from being traditionally successful within the school system is considered failure,” she said.
Her sons have ADHD, sensory processing disorder, dyslexia, giftedness, and dysgraphia. During the emotional road to diagnosis, her family would say that her boys will outgrow their struggles. She feels that South Asian parents may force their children to appear normal, but that she has better luck doing the opposite.
“I had to research the available classroom accommodations for my kids, and then educate their teachers. I structure our home and activities based on their needs, rather than traditional expectations. Most importantly, we teach our kids to listen to their bodies, understand their brains, and advocate for themselves,” she said. “Their brains will work differently no matter how we feel about it, so it’s up to us to give them the power to love and understand their unique ways of navigating their world.”
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