Self-Descriptions By Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in New Delhi and Los Angeles: The Power of Cultural Context
Most research on ASD to date has focused on the immediate social skills, rather than the broader cultural skills, of individuals with ASD. Cross-cultural research has shown that cognitive and emotional patterns may differ significantly across cultural contexts. For instance, decades of research have shown that individuals in Western cultures have overall more autonomous, and more abstract, self-concepts, compared with individuals in non-Western cultures, who have more social and specific self-concepts (Markus and Kitayama, 1991; Rhee et al. 1995). It is unclear whether individuals with ASD, who have impairments in self- and other-understanding, will acquire the relevant cultural patterns regarding self- and other-concepts; or whether their social impairments will extend to broader cultural impairments. Here we present the first test, to our knowledge, of self- and other-concepts in a cross-cultural sample of individuals with ASD in Los Angeles, USA, and New Delhi, India.
To determine whether self-descriptions by Americans with ASD are more autonomous and abstract, and less social and specific, than those of Indians with ASD, as would be predicted from their cultural context (Rhee et al., 1995).
Thirty-two high-functioning youth with ASD (6 females; M=12.4), and 30 age-, gender- and IQ-matched typically developing (TD) controls were interviewed in Los Angeles. Twelve high-functioning adults with ASD (2 females; M=25.1) and 12 TD adults, matched for age, gender, language preference and income, were in interviewed in New Delhi. Participants were asked to describe themselves in as many ways possible, starting with “I am…”. Transcripts were parsed into phrases and coded by 2 coders blind to location and diagnosis according to 28 sub-categories (e.g., traits, evaluations, emotional states), categorized as social/autonomous and abstract/specific based on Rhee et al. (1995).
Participants with ASD provided marginally fewer relevant responses, compared with TD participants, across both cultures (F(1,94)=3.02, p=.086). Individuals in Los Angeles were significantly more likely to self-describe in autonomous (F(1,85)=9.33, p<.01) and abstract (F(1,85)=51.5, p<.001) ways, compared with individuals in New Delhi. We found no significant effect of Group, nor interaction effect, for either axis of interest: social/autonomous and specific/abstract.
Our findings demonstrate that, despite their difficulties with self- and social-understanding, individuals with ASD are sensitive to their cultural contexts. Indeed, group differences between TD and ASD individuals appeared insignificant compared with the significant cross-cultural differences in self-description between individuals in New Delhi and Los Angeles. Care was taken to match ASD and TD individuals in each culture on relevant characteristics; though our cross-cultural comparison is limited in that American participants were youth, and Indian participants were adults. Our findings have important social implications: demonstrating that (a) individuals with autism can acquire cultural schemas from their surroundings; and that (b) relatively speaking, ASD and TD individuals in each local culture share a much more similar self-concept than do individuals from different cultures.