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Six people pose in front of a building, all smiling. Two wear nametags.

Friends of Children with Special Needs holds Family Support Gatherings for children and adults with a wide range of cognitive and developmental disabilities every weekend, where they participate in fun activities.

Photo courtesy of Friends of Children with Special Needs

  • This Community Is Deconstructing Asian Cultural Stigma around Neurodivergence

    “Asian families, they sweep this under the rug and don’t mention it to anyone,” says Anna Wang, a troubled look in her eyes.

    Wang is co-founder and vice president of Friends of Children with Special Needs (FCSN), a nonprofit organization supporting neurodivergent Asian Americans and their families. Based in Fremont, California, across the bay from San Francisco, FCSN was established in 1996 to address the Asian cultural stigma surrounding children with disabilities. Wang and a handful of other parents pioneered a way for Autistic children to feel seen through a community of others like them. Their stories communicate their passion and bravery in working to change how Asian parents see children with special needs.

    As Wang explains, some Asian parents believe having a child with developmental issues is a source of shame. As a result of this cultural stigma, they ignore symptoms of conditions like Autism, so that many children never receive proper diagnosis, care, or accommodations. These children grow up with limited access to the appropriate services or environment they need to lead a successful and comfortable life.

    An Asian mother and teen smile at the camera, sitting at an outdoor restaurant.
    Anna Wang with her son, Lawrence
    Photo courtesy of Anna Wang

    Wang experienced the realities of the stigma firsthand when her son, Lawrence, was diagnosed with Autism at three years old. Ever since, Wang has been passionate about educating Asian parents and the broader Asian American community about Autism, creating platforms in which people with special needs are supported and celebrated. On a larger level, this advocacy provides an environment for immigrant parents to find community.

    East Asian Cultural Stigmas Regarding Autism

    Autism is a fairly recent diagnosis in East Asian countries. While the term itself has been used in Western regions for over a century, it was not recognized as an official diagnosis in China until the 1980s. A 2016 CDC report found that roughly one in eighty-eight Asian and Pacific Islander children in the United States identified as being on the Autism spectrum. However, Rooshey Hasnain, a disability researcher, found that “disabled Asian Americans are underserved and receive lower-quality support and rehabilitation compared to other groups, including Latinos and Blacks.”

    “I was taught not to openly admit that we have a child with special needs,” Wang says. She believes that one reason parents have this mentality is because Asian and Asian American culture places great importance on being accomplished both in academic and career spheres. “From way back when, Asian parents pride themselves on their children going to Stanford and all the Ivy League schools.”

    Rather than fail to meet such criteria, “they try to hide the fact that they have a child with special needs. They pretend they don’t exist, hide them at home, and make sure they don’t go out,” Wang continues. However, many Autistic individuals do attend college and pursue successful careers. Through her efforts in the organization, Wang hopes to help demonstrate the many capabilities of those on the spectrum.

    For many Asian parents, the success of their children speaks to the success of the family. According to studies cited by, this may be because East Asian countries tend to emphasize the collective family over the individual. While the United States preaches independence and self-growth from a young age, countries like China and South Korea focus on dependence within the family. With a child on the spectrum, the ability for the family to meet standardized definitions of success diminishes.

    The Role of Confucianism in Defining Success

    The focus on family is strongly rooted in Confucianism. Founded by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, this system of belief has structured China’s social and ethical principles for over two millennia. Over the years, the tenets of Confucianism extended to Japan and Korea.

    Confucianism places value on family togetherness alongside maintaining harmonious relationships in the larger social sphere. It focuses on the roles and relationships that make up the ideal family, emphasizing the importance of filial piety, of respecting parents, elders, and ancestors—obeying parents, providing for them, and taking care of them when they are old. It is centered around the idea that because parents provide for and sacrifice their own desires for their children, children are eternally indebted to their parents.

    However, disorders like Autism prevent some Asian children from fulfilling this exchange. Unable to meet societal expectations of success, some Autistic individuals are pushed aside. The Confucian mentality is evident among Asian immigrants in the United States. With the sacrifices that parents make in moving to a new country, there is even greater pressure on children to seize “the American dream.” Wang sums it up: “They think that having a child with special needs is losing face, while having a child that goes to Harvard is glory to your family.”

    When their son Lawrence was first diagnosed, Wang and her husband realized they knew very little about the condition. “We were really at a loss and didn’t know how to raise a child with a particular special need,” she recalls.

    Immigrants to the United States often have a complete lack of understanding and awareness about developmental conditions, especially as language barriers prevent parents from getting their children diagnosed or learning more. According to Reuters Health, approximately one-third of U.S. hospitals do not provide patient translation services. On top of this, cultural hierarchies rooted in filial piety makes it difficult for many Asian parents to speak up and have someone address their needs. Respecting elders also means respecting authority, which can result in taking doctors’ words as they are and refraining from questioning or challenging them.

    Kids and adults in face masks and face shields pose around a sign for FCSN: Friends of Children with Special Needs. 2300 Peralta Blvd. The sign also has the name in Chinese characters.
    Children at FCSN welcome back in-person activities and events after the organization turned to virtual gatherings during the pandemic.
    Photo courtesy of Friends of Children with Special Needs

    The Importance of Community for Families of Neurodiverse Children

    Realizing how important it was to learn more about their son’s conditions, Wang and her husband did their own research and reached out to others, believing that “living in hiding was no way of having a future.” At that time, at age six, Lawrence was nonspeaking and demonstrated some typical behaviors of a child on the spectrum. He was easily irritated and failed to understand social cues.

    The most challenging thing about raising Lawrence, Wang says, was trying to understand why he frequently hurt himself. Although it’s not a universal behavior, she found that “kids with Autism try to divert a lot of their internal pain externally. They inflict injury or pain on themselves. You don’t know how to help them, but you see that they are hurting a lot—and that hurts even more when you’re a mom.” It was then that she realized the importance of a support group.

    “We reached out to all our available channels to see how we could learn to raise a child with special needs and also awaken the Asian community—to really embrace having a child with special needs.”

    Discovering a lack of neurodivergent communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wang and a few other Asian families with Autistic children founded an organization that welcomed parents of special needs children. In Wang’s words, they believe that “togetherness can empower each other to face challenges and to share experiences.” With a solid community of like-minded people, they figured that no parent would need to struggle through navigating an unknown world of diagnosis by themselves.

    Friends of Children with Special Needs eventually created breakout groups that parents could join. The organization established programs composed of playgroups in which the children could do arts and crafts and play games. Along with providing a space to explore various interests, the programs are designed to help the children improve their fine motor skills, as well as communication, social, and behavioral skills.

    Over the years, FCSN expanded to the point that Wang and other organizers recognized the need to create larger and more specialized programs that cater to children of all ages. Today, FCSN offers more than forty programs across a variety of interests, including art, music, computer programming, sports, and cooking.

    Kids and adults work on art and craft activities around a table.
    Students work on an art project in an FCSN after-school program.
    Photo courtesy of Friends of Children with Special Needs
    Kids and adults set up a camping tent indoors.
    Students at FCSN learn how to set up a tent with volunteers from the Boy Scouts.
    Photo courtesy of Friends of Children with Special Needs

    Wang noted that many parents worried about who would take care of their children as they grew older themselves, so starting in 2016, FCSN expanded its services to include an Adult Day Program and Supported Living Services. Although not every young adult with Autism requires such services, they’ll have a strong support system in place to ensure their independence in the outside world.

    “FCSN is a lifelong support system,” Wang attests. “We are constantly recruiting new families and parents who have younger children, so that we can pass our baton to them. When the original or pioneering parents pass away, we know that the new parents will be able to hold the support system together and help our children.”  

    The organization now boasts a membership of over 1,000 families in the Bay Area. Its diverse members consist of immigrants, people of all age groups, neurodiverse individuals, and more. The COVID-19 pandemic has been both a curse and a blessing in boosting membership. While in-person activities halted, the pandemic encouraged the nonprofit to focus on virtual outreach, allowing parents to come together over Zoom, further promoting FCSN and its community-oriented mission.

    Wang understands why people are so eager to join this organization. “When it comes to issues like Autism, people just don’t know what to do. But then they see that there’s another group that wants to reach out to them, and they quickly join.”

    Wang notes that about ninety percent of individuals with special needs in the FCSN program are children of first-generation immigrants from Asia—primarily China. They find sanctuary among those who share the common struggles in coming to a new country.

    Celebrating the Talents and Abilities of Neurodiverse Individuals

    Beyond the programs FCSN offers, the nonprofit hosts activities and events such as the Fourth of July Parade and the Spring Carnival to promote its cause across the Bay Area. In April, FCSN hosts an annual special needs talent show, one of the organization’s most anticipated events. The showcase gives everyone an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, overturning the stereotype that having a disability, as Wang puts it, “means no abilities.”

    “You would be completely astonished at all the talent that we have—comedians, dancers, singers,” Wang describes with excitement. “People who cannot talk can sing, and people who cannot carry on a conversation can be really good actors.” When parents see all their children can do, it redefines their idea of success—focusing instead on exploring differences and having fun while doing it.

    However, children cannot discover these new paths without the help of those around them. “A lot of them expressed to me that they would not know what to do if we were not there to set an example or pioneer this journey,” Wang says. But through organizations like Friends of Children with Special Needs, parents can learn from their children what Wang learned with Lawrence: “You have to challenge your kids. They are actually up to the challenge. We think in our mind that they can’t do it, so we never try.” Platforms like the talent show push parents to see their children’s potential in new ways and also gives children the confidence they need to discover their own abilities.

    As a child, Lawrence tended to react to music in ways that could be perceived as negative by others, such as covering his ears and rocking back and forth. But when he was nineteen, his music teacher suggested that instead of forcing Lawrence to sit in with other students and learn how to play the recorder, he should be allowed to behave as he pleased. With this new freedom, Lawrence went to a corner of the room, rocking back and forth and making faces. But at the end of class, “He picked up the recorder and played all the songs that the teacher taught in half an hour,” Wang says proudly. “Later, we convinced him to learn music from this teacher. Two months after that, he performed as a soloist at many concerts.”

    Today, Lawrence is a professional musician who sings and plays six different instruments, including drums and saxophone. He performs at over seventy concerts each year, encouraging many other children on the spectrum to demonstrate their own talents to the world.

    An Asian man wearing fedora and sunglasses plays saxophone under bright stage lights.
    Lawrence plays tenor sax at the 2016 FCSN talent show.
    Photo © Eldon Chan 2015

    FCSN’s Impact on Children and Families

    Darren Ko, a sixteen-year-old boy who joined FCSN at age five, was able to find his own talents through the organization. “I started learning the piano at FCSN when I was five or six years old,” he explains. “Afterwards, I started being a member of the community. Since then, I’ve joined the Special Needs Talent Showcase and the Galactic Orchestra playing the clarinet, which played a big part in my life.” Darren continues, “I wish people knew that Autistic people can be as talented as everyone else. We want to have friends and be part of their community.”

    Darren’s mother, Kelly Ko, is FCSN’s program director. She emphasizes how the nonprofit has given both her and her son the support they needed ever since Darren was diagnosed.

    “Being part of FCSN has provided me the courage to discuss my child’s Autism and the experiences and challenges that my son and I went through,” Ko explains. “It also helped me understand more about not only my son but the disability community. We all feel like family at FCSN, and as a parent and a staff member here, I can feel all the support around me. As a staff, I am mentoring and supporting the parents, but as a parent, I am also getting support from other parents.”

    A young Asian boy wearing a straw cowboy hat and a blue galaxy shirt waves his arms in the air. Behind him, someone in an alien costume with green head and  blue suit.
    Darren plays the role of Andy from Toy Story at an FCSN performance, alongside his friends.
    Photo courtesy of Kelly Ko

    Ko elaborates on how grateful she is for the community that FCSN has provided Darren: “Growing up with his peers with special needs, I feel that it is a safe place for him because he won’t be judged by his disability or be bullied because of it. The kids at FCSN are so pure, and he has made friends at the after-school program.”

    Redefining the immigrant idea of success is difficult. After all, people come from thousands of miles away to pursue the American dream. But when surrounded and encouraged by the right community, parents like Wang and Ko can learn to diversify the meaning of success and create a brighter future for children of all backgrounds and abilities. Organizations like FCSN encourage neurodiverse individuals to show the world what they are capable of.

    Over time, advocating for a better understanding of developmental conditions among Asian immigrants in the United States can ultimately influence countries on the other side of the world to do the same.

    Gloria Koo is a former writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a master’s student at the University of Cambridge, studying social anthropology.

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