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Border Children: Interpreting Autism Spectrum Disorder in South Korea


  • Roy Richard Grinker,

  • Kyungjin Cho


In this article, we describe reluctant mothers on the brink of accepting autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a diagnosis for their children, but caught in a web of social meanings that push them to resist it. We argue that several tensions underlie this resistance: (1) an opposition between homogeneity and heterogeneity, in which mothers aim to define their child as “normal”; (2) a distinction between social and intellectual domains of child development, in which mothers localize their children's problems as deficits in a discrete area of development, rather than as a global or pervasive impairment; and (3) an opposition between chronicity and recovery, in which mothers reject a label they fear will index a permanent condition. These oppositions help to define the interaction between a diagnosis new to Koreans (ASD) and a particular condition (the child who has the symptoms of ASD but is academically successful) to form a new kind of child that mothers and teachers increasingly call “border children” (gyonggye-seon aideul). This specific ethnographic inquiry informs debates over the ontological bases for psychiatric diagnoses in children, and the processes through which local institutions, classificatory schemes, expertise, and child behavior shape conceptions of child development. [autism, Korea, child development, child psychiatry, border children]