This piece is part of the Autism and Culture series, in which researchers at the Faculty of Education carrying out studies relating to autism across the globe reflect on new challenges and exciting opportunities as they share ideas and carry out studies. This series was published in recognition of World Autism Awareness Week 2021, and you can view the rest of the series here: https://fersacambridge.com/?s=Autism+and+Culture
Literature exploring the changes in societal conceptualisation of autism has typically reflected Western societies (Silberman, 2015), and does not tend to explore the social stigmas surrounding autism that prevail in other contexts. It is of great importance that we, as researchers, recognise that the lived experience of individuals with autism differs between cultures. Recognition of these differences should in turn influence the nature of the research conducted. My research focuses on Vietnam, where social stigmas surrounding autism are rooted in societal traditions, religion and spirituality, as well as legislative frameworks. Through my own research, as well as my interactions with academics at the Faculty of Education, I have reflected on challenges such as these facing the global autism community, and have recognised the importance of exploring autism within contexts which have been underrepresented in research. It has been interesting to discuss individual experiences with autism research within different cultural contexts, and these discussions have shown me that there are many possible directions for future research.
When exploring autism in a global context, it is important to recognise one’s positionality in relation to different cultures, so that as a research community we can engage in culturally sensitive research. Prioritising the voices, experiences and testimonials of those within a certain community can provide a conceptual guide for one’s own research. My engagement with education and psychology has always been framed by a sensitivity to such cultural nuances, as I grew up in a multicultural household and have experienced education systems in the UK and Vietnam. Being both British and Vietnamese has allowed me to develop a unique insight into different cultures and their unique influences on individuals’ lived experiences. Recognition of one’s positionality in relation to certain communities is of particular importance when research aims to implement an intervention, or a change in diagnostic criteria, as there may be intricate cultural systems to navigate before encouraging such a change.
Taking a holistic approach that considers the many experiences different individuals might have and embedding those experiences within broader social contexts might be one way to conduct more culturally-sensitive research. By listening to and collaborating with researchers with different theoretical understandings, members of culturally-specific autism communities, as well as those involved with policy changes, autism research in a global context may become more refined. It is also of considerable importance that research is representative of the many different experiences of individuals within the global autism community, which is why conducting research which reflects the real, lived experiences of individuals within different autism communities is of such value. By constantly reflecting on the research process and the intentions we have in pursuing global autism research, we can hope to engage in a more productive, yet still respectful, approach.
Leoni Boyle is a third-year undergraduate studying Education, Psychology and Learning at the Faculty of Education and is the President of the University of Cambridge Education Society. Her current research looks at the social stigmas surrounding autism in Vietnam.