Kim To: Why is neurodiversity not discussed in the Asian community?

Hi, my name is Kim and I am a 27-year-old Vietnamese British Londoner. I also happen to be dyslexic and have ADHD.

I didn’t realize I had any “learning difficulties” (I put this in speech brackets because I think my neurodiversity is a difference in learning, no a difficulty) until I went to university. Before this, I was that eager Asian kid in school who kept her head down, handed all my homework in time, and spent my free time revising or studying. Perhaps this is what happens to a lot of people from state schools (free public schools) who do well enough to not be noticed by teachers. Being Asian probably had a role in this too as I was determined to do well at school. I now know this is called “masking” as I was able to compensate my weak working memory with hours of memorization often months before an exam. Looking back, I don’t know what I did most of my childhood other than prepare for exams.

Things changed at university. I studied at The London School of Economics and Political Science for my bachelor’s degree. I majored in Economic History which is a very qualitative heavy degree. I had thought I would apply the same strategies that had got me through school and college. The strategy was to start early, spend however long on an essay that was needed and I will surely see the results…right? Nope. That didn’t work. I struggled with the reading, the essays, and staying on top of my assignments. I felt like I was slower than my peers. Whenever I sat in a lecture, no matter how detailed my note-taking was, I couldn’t remember what the content of the lecture was when it ended. For the first time in my life, I felt stupid.

Things came ahead when in my second year of university I plagiarised (by accident, of course, I struggled to summarise text so I copied and pasted) an essay and was given a very stern chat by the dean of my course. I was threatened that I would be barred from exams. I couldn’t believe I was in this position. I then started wrestling with the idea that perhaps that I have something going on. I had heard people getting diagnosed with dyslexia on campus so I booked myself an appointment. Long story short, I got diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 20. It didn’t really hit me what this meant other than extra time in exams and an explanation to why I sucked at reading academic texts. It is only at the age of 27 now having had just been diagnosed with ADHD 6 months ago am I able to reflect on the implications of being Asian and being neurodiverse.

Spoiler, dyslexia did not stop me going back and completing a Master’s degree

What has neurodiversity got anything to do with being Asian?

Being the firstborn to Vietnamese refugees, there was and still high expectations of academic success. For someone like me, that has contributed to the deterioration in my mental health. Not only because of the pressure to meet expectations but also because the reality is living with neurodiverse learning difficulties makes it a lot harder to be “successful” in neurotypical settings.

What I mean by this is for a neurodiverse person to succeed, they have to work 10x harder than someone who does not have a learning difficulty. Our academic institutions, the workplaces, and how we evaluate people are not designed with a neurodiverse person in mind. Working 10x harder becomes exhausting take it from me. I have suffered from bouts of burnout and depression. I worked extremely hard in my bachelor’s and when I got my 2:1, even though I was extremely proud of myself I still felt embarrassed that I did not achieve a 1st. My first graduate job in consulting was good but I was conscious that I was not earning as high as my friends in finance. I had found the graduate applications difficult because I struggled with writing applications due to my dyslexia and ADHD.

For me, this has played out in me constantly thinking I am a failure. I didn’t get that 1st in my bachelor’s. I have constantly moved between different jobs due to feeling extremely bored (a symptom of ADHD). I underperformed in the finance job that I worked so hard to get. I couldn’t keep up with the workload as well as studying for CFA exams. I neglected my health multiple times and put work first. Loathing myself for having dyslexia and ADHD which I felt held me back at achieving everything my parents would be proud of me.

This year something inside me switched. I realized that the pressure that I was putting on myself…striving for perfection was something that I no longer wanted to live by. I wanted to focus on my mental health.

With the help of google translator, I told my parents about my mental health issues. I told them how I struggled with work because of my dyslexia and ADHD and how perpetually unhappy I felt. I told them that I no longer wanted to work in an office because I don’t feel like that was the environment that was going to bring the best out of me. My mum replied, “I think you studied so hard it has turned you crazy”.

I wasn’t offended. Of course, I knew that neurodiversity is a concept that is not fully understood in Asian cultures. It made me wonder though about all the Asian children, teenagers, adults out there who struggle between trying to meet the Asian expectations of the successful asian child and the realities of living with neurodiversity. We need more discussions about neurodiversity in the Asian community and the mental health implications it has. Having learning differences is not what is the problem. It becomes a problem when the environment we grow up in is not nurturing for us to explore our strengths and be happy with who we are. I hope by sharing this, I can encourage the Asian community to reflect on neurodiversity and why we don’t talk about it in our community.

This article was written by Kim To, an ADHD Coach. To find out more, visit her website: www.geniuspotential.uk

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