Autism is widely recognised throughout the world but the diagnostic criteria and theories of autism are based on research predominantly conducted in Western cultures. However it is important to consider that what is typical may differ between cultures. Indeed, significant differences in behaviour and cognition have been observed between individualist and collectivist cultures. Hence the point at which normal variability differentiates from an actual disorder, such as an ASD, is likely to be influenced by cultural values and norms. Cross-cultural comparative studies are required to fully understand the impact of culture on behaviour and therefore whether behaviours that are included in autism diagnosis in Western cultures are also considered atypical in non-Western cultures.
To identify possible cultural differences in the expression of autistic traits between one Western, individualist culture (UK) and two Eastern, collectivist cultures (India and Malaysia).
The Autism-spectrum Quotient (AQ) was completed by neurotypical undergraduate and postgraduate university students across three countries (UK n=723; India n=271; Malaysia n=245).
Behaviours associated with autism were reported to a greater extent in the Eastern cultures than the Western culture (UK mean score = 17.2; India mean score = 21.2; Malaysia mean score = 21.7). Males reported more autistic traits than females, and science students reported more autistic traits than non-science students in each culture. Indian students reported more autistic traits than both other groups on the Imagination sub-scale, Malaysian students reported more autistic traits than both other groups on the Attention Switching sub-scale. Similarities in empirically derived factor structures emerged between groups, with each group displaying a clear “social enjoyment” factor. Social communication and attention to detail also emerged strongly in each of the cultures, though these factors appeared to be more closely linked in the Eastern samples than in the UK sample. Imagination emerged as a factor in the UK and Malaysian samples but not in the Indian sample.
Behaviours associated with the broader autism phenotype are more prevalent in collectivist cultures than individualist cultures. Differences were also observed between cultures in how behaviours associated with different aspects of autism grouped together. It is therefore clear that behaviours associated with autism are strongly influenced by culture. We propose that differences in social structure and cultural interpretation strongly contribute to observed differences. As each of the samples were drawn from academically successful individuals (students) it is also clear that possessing slightly more autistic traits is not detrimental to academic success in collectivist cultures and may even be valued.
See more of: Clinical Phenotype
See more of: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Phenotype