Culturally informed intervention strategies may be effective in reducing autism stigma in South Korea

A new study of South Korean families, presented as part of the International Society for Autism Research annual meeting last week, reveals higher autism stigma and less autism knowledge in those families compared with U.S. families.  

Greater autism stigma and less autism knowledge results in more discrimination against autistic individuals and can greatly affect their quality of life, according to researcher So Yoon Kim, Ph.D.  

South Korea is an ethnically and culturally uniform country, whereas the U.S. is more culturally diverse. Those who deviate from standard social norms, such as autistic individuals, in South Korea often become the target of discrimination, Kim said.  

Kim, an assistant professor at Duksung Women’s University in South Korea, wanted to explore if the higher rates of autism stigma in South Korea were the result of this social uniformity. Kim said answering this question would “help inform the development of culturally relevant and effective stigma interventions.” 

Kim and her team of researchers used a measure called “cultural tightness” to test this hypothesis. Cultural tightness refers to the strength of a society’s cultural norm and how tolerant they are toward people who are different from those norms. Since the U.S. is a culturally and ethnically diverse country, they expected to find that U.S. families would have lower levels of cultural tightness compared to South Korean families.  

Kim found South Korea families had higher levels of cultural tightness than U.S. families and that this was associated with autism stigma among Koreans, but not Americans.  

Dr. Kim’s findings suggest that the particular emphasis put on social and cultural norms may be the factor contributing to heightened autism stigma in South Korea. She proposed that interventions helping Koreans understand that there are diverse neurotypes that have the inability to conform to social norms may be helpful in reducing autism stigma and discrimination.  

Other studies published on stigma in the Korean-American community found that discomfort and discrimination are the prevailing community attitudes towards autism. Kim’s findings may also be beneficial in advising culturally competent interventions in the Korean-American community.  

Additionally, Dr. Kim pointed out that cultural tightness increases in difficult times, including the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“It is possible that increased cultural tightness in response to COVID-19 may be exacerbating the stigmas autistic individuals are facing,” Kim said in her presentation. This suggests the need to know how the pandemic may be influencing autism stigma right now and is an area of research Dr. Kim hopes to explore in the future. 

“Breaking down stigma barriers to autism allows us to provide individuals in the autistic community with the care and support they need to reach their full potential,” said Thomas W. Frazier, Ph.D., chief science officer at Autism Speaks. “Culturally informed intervention strategies are the most effective way to deliver services that meet the unique social, cultural and linguistic needs of different communities.”