Evacuation out of Vietnam on 20 April

by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.

April 20th marks the 46th anniversary since I was evacuated on an RAAF flight out of Vietnam. That day changed the course of my life and the memories of it will forever be etched in my mind.

April in general is a significant month for many Vietnamese Adoptees as it is the month in which over 3000 babies/children were also evacuated. Like myself these children boarded military transport planes bound for adoption by American, Canadian, European and Australian families.

The fors and againsts of having done this have been debated. I would like to say there was no telling what would have become of my life had I stayed, nor was there any telling of what was to become of my life by being removed. The fact remains that I was removed at the age of 5 from a family I knew and placed in a foreign country. This experience was very traumatic and I lost my identity, language, culture and everything familiar to me. In Australia I experienced a different form of hardship and difficulty to what I would have experienced had I remained.

Fortunately, many who left Vietnam were adopted into loving foreign families. I wasn’t granted that right and was adopted into an abusive and dysfunctional family. Regardless that family clothed me, fed me and provided me with a good education and I will always be thankful to them for that. Australia is indeed a privileged country offering endless opportunities and being removed from war torn Vietnam like all adoptees I had a chance to make a better life for myself.

What happened I cannot change, but what I have the power to change is my attitude and the way I react and deal in all circumstances. I know I am the person I am today because of all that I have experienced. It has made me stronger, more forgiving, more understanding and more loving. For this I am grateful.

What I have been through is also in part what propelled me 17 years ago to return to Vietnam to find my birth mother and to work with orphaned and disadvantaged children. Without a doubt God’s hand has been upon my life. He has guided me, protected me, opened doors and put some amazing people in my life. Gratitude fills my heart for all those who have impacted my life over the years.

During this anniversary month for adoptees, my thoughts too are very much for birth mothers. Many birth mothers returned to orphanages to collect their children and they had gone. This time signifies permanent loss for them. I have hugged some of these mothers and seen their tears. As my mother’s tears have been wiped dry, I too hope these mothers can reconnect with their children.

Read My Huong’s previous article My Mother.

Adoptees Need Mental Health Services

by Christina Soo Ja Massey, aka YooNett adopted from South Korea to the USA.

I shaved my Hair because of two Reasons:
The upcoming Scottish Mental Health and Arts Festival in May 2021.
My current state of declining Mental Health.

The Tears of Trauma I cried as a helpless Orphan in the past, I cry as an Adult throughout my entire Life.

I am an Overseas Korean Adoptee.
Adoption is Not a Happy Ever After that some may try to make believe.

A homeless Overseas Korean Adoptee, telling of an Adoptive Family that does not discuss anything to do with his Adoption and previous Background. Loosing another Overseas Korean Adoptee through Suicide. Many Overseas Korean Adoptees who have been lied to about their past, present and Future. Many Suffering further Neglect or more Abuse of all Forms at the Hands of their Adopters.
Just consider we have already experienced Traumas by loosing Birthparents in the first place.

In the 1970s and 80s Korea has been accused of child trafficking because of the increasing number of Korean Children sent Overseas for Adoption.

The Picture my Adopters received from Korea was of a Toddler with the Hair shaved off. I suffered from a rash on my head caused by Atopic Eczema. Atopic Eczema stays through out life retelling the story of every aspect of stress experienced by the Body.
So does Post Traumatic Stress.

You may think of other people famous or not who shaved their head in a state of Mental Distress. Sinead O’connor, Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse … what ever their motive.

Shaving the head is recognised as a symptoms that can occur in connection to Mental illness, but not to any specific Form of Mental Illness. Sufferers often have gone on experiencing a mental breakdown soon After, maybe in a state of Mania … An attempt to regain control or a sign of loosing control.

There are numerous social media contributions online of people shaving their Hair off during the Lockdown of this Covid-19 Pandemic.

We urgently need to address shortcomings in the Mental Health Services. We need a safe and well resourced Environment in which Mental Health Professionals can continue Working. Better access to advanced Technologies and Social Media. More Diversity. More Holistic and individual tailored Therapies. Just to list a few.

As long as Mental Health Issues are continued to be unheard and unseen, there is little hope for more resources.

Get involved and raise awareness. Thanks.

#mentalhealthawareness
#mentalhealthmatters
#mentalillness
#mentalillnessawareness
#survivor
#seeme
#arts
#artsandmentalhealth
#artsandmentalhealthfestival
#korean
#asian
#german
#asianlivesmatter
#international
#adoptee
#overseasadoption
#suicide
#atopiceczema
#orphan
#ptsd
#bpd
#severedepression
#suicidalideation
#emotionalunstablepersonalitydisorder
#ambivalentattacment
#trustissues
#difficultrelationships
#domesticviolence
#sexualabuse
#humantrafficking

Autism and Adoption

by Jodi Gibson Moore born in the UK and adopted to Northern America.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series written for Autism Awareness Month.

April is Autism Awareness Month

I always knew I was “different”. It took 40 years of almost continuous searching to find the right words for my kind of “different”, although being internationally adopted had a lot to do with it. My father’s sister took me from my home country when I was 21 months old, with the help of her mother, my paternal grandmother who was my guardian at the time. My aunt and uncle finalised their adoption of me when I was almost four. They would have told anybody that I seemed to have “adjusted” to the multiple disruptions in those early years but my behaviour screamed otherwise and I never bonded with either of them.

Growing up, I always knew I was adopted; I don’t remember being told or having to be told. My adopters told me about my flight from England with the woman who adopted me and her mother, my grandma. They talked about me being sick on the plane and how surprised the man who would later adopt me was when he picked up his wife and mother-in-law at the airport, and there I was with them. They laughed at my childish attempts to say their first names. Later, they would punish me for calling them by their names. I always knew they weren’t my parents but they wouldn’t answer any of my questions about my parents or my origins. I was told I came from the puppy farm, like Snoopy in the comics and I learned they expected me to pretend I was their daughter or else I would be lectured and punished. That didn’t sit right with me. I knew babies came from their parents and since I hadn’t come from them, they weren’t my parents. They made me go along with their pretend game but I got in trouble for pretending and making up stories. I was 12 years old when the woman who adopted me finally told me she was actually my aunt. I was angry at her for lying to me all this time and betraying me but I was glad I finally had a category to put her in: auntie. When I told her I wanted to call her that and her husband “uncle”, she yelled at me and told me not to. I had broken the rule of not upsetting her, so of course it was my fault, not hers for keeping a secret from me for ten years. She apparently had a medical condition and I wasn’t allowed to say or do anything to upset her and my uncle, who hadn’t wanted children in the first place, had a bad temper and yelled a lot. Instead of blaming him, she used to tell me she’d never heard him shout before I came along – so that was my fault too. They had me walking on eggshells the whole time I lived with them and I was too clumsy not to shatter them.   

At the age of 41, I finally received an official medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s subtype (this was around the time the DSM-5 did away with the separate diagnosis of Asperger’s and merged it with autism spectrum, so the updated diagnosis is level 1 ASD) along with ADHD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), and developmental coordination disorder/dyspraxia. Had I been diagnosed in early childhood, doctors, educators and my aunt and uncle adopter would have understood why I had trouble focusing at school or transitioning between activities, didn’t always understand verbal instructions, wanted to wear dark glasses even on cloudy days, didn’t like making eye contact with others, talked more comfortably with adults than children, “switched off” at times, and couldn’t stand on one foot for more than about three seconds. All of the symptoms were documented in my medical files when I was 5 but that had been the late 1970s and there wasn’t much awareness of “high functioning” autism back then, especially in girls.

As I was trying to decide how to approach this topic, the intersection of adoption trauma, international adoptee status, and disability/neurodiversity, it occurred to me that there is much symptom overlap and several parallels between developmental trauma and autism spectrum, along with other conditions comorbid with ASD. These conditions include, as I mentioned above, ADHD, SPD and other possible processing differences that impact how we take in information. We may have trouble understanding instructions for a variety of reasons. I remember being a little kid in daycare trying to open a bag and getting yelled at repeatedly to “untwist the wire.” I didn’t know the strip of green paper concealed a wire. All I saw was paper. The daycare woman didn’t have a lot of patience with me or think very highly of my intellectual abilities. Between her and my aunt and uncle adopter, I grew up feeling like I was stupid. My aunt constantly spoke in euphemisms or British colloquialisms that nobody else around me used and I couldn’t understand what she meant and she wouldn’t explain them for me. It was like a secret code I couldn’t crack, or a foreign language. She just didn’t like to call things what they were, the same as when she refused to tell me what she knew about my background, which deprived me of a lot of the grounding and structure I needed. I learned not to trust her. I learned to be ashamed of the ways in which I was different; I learned to hate myself for the things that set me apart from everybody else. Very few people focused on my strengths, but everyone commented on and most made fun of, my shortcomings.

Is it adoption or autism?

I probably ask myself this question several times a day and more often than not, it leads to overthinking and no definite answers. Social anxiety, difficulty identifying or verbalising emotions, keeping lots of space between myself and others – “social distancing” is a way of life for me – and not knowing how to participate in group activities may be signs of hypervigilance and consequences of preverbal trauma rather than autistic behaviors. Not picking up on social cues? My aunt adopter thought I just didn’t want to pay attention and I don’t know how she perceived my inability to interpret her veiled speech. The fact I viewed the adopters as guardians instead of parents, literally as my aunt and uncle when I found out the truth, could be simply realism and logic. In my mind, my aunt and uncle couldn’t be my parents. I didn’t even meet them until I was almost two and I never felt close to them or safe with them. That could be autistic black-and-white thinking but there are other things I remember or have been told from my early childhood. I learned to read early when I was three, but even before then I could identify almost any car on the road. My uncle adopter used to laugh about the time he caught me lining up my grandma’s cigarettes in front of the fireplace, making sure they were exactly straight and doing the same thing with my toy cars. I’d prefer to use dolls to act out the stories in my head than play with other girls. Due to the neighbourhood and the fact my aunt and uncle adopters were old enough to be my grandparents, I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with other than their friends’ children. I always thought their age and the huge generation gap was the reason I didn’t really know how to socialise and “hang out” with girls my own age and found it easier to talk with adults if they didn’t intimidate me, but that seems to be another autistic trait.

Even hypersensitivity to rejection, which seems to be an almost universal part of the adoptee experience (after all, we perceive early maternal separation as a rejection or abandonment) can be attributed to rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD), a recently identified condition often comorbid with ADHD and autism spectrum. Autistic individuals tend to like routine and order, need to be prepared well in advance for changes or disruptions, and I can’t think of a worse disruption to a small child than being separated from their whole family in one day, uprooted from their home and placed with strangers in a different sensory environment. Strangers who look, sound, and smell different; strangers who aren’t tuned in to the child’s needs and could overwhelm them; strangers who want to touch and hold the child when the child needs to keep a safe distance and may have an aversion to being touched.

I often ran away from the adopters as a child and adolescent. Sometimes I’d walk far enough ahead of them so that nobody would associate me with them; sometimes I’d lose them in stores; sometimes I’d wander away from them on outings. I’ve heard that a lot of autistic children do this, perhaps because of impulsivity, distraction, or just a lack of concern for safety. For me it was an escape behaviour, the “flight” aspect of the stress/trauma response. I just didn’t want to be around them – had to get away from them. I might have been distracted by somebody who reminded me of a parent or someone else from home (this may often be the case with older adoptees) or I may have been hoping that someone would find me and return me to my parents – help me get back home. It never happened.   

In what some might call “typical ADHD,” my thoughts often go in several different directions, probably giving me enough material to write a whole series on neurodiversity and how it intersects with adoption, and maybe I will. But it needs to be said that adoption, and more specifically the act of early maternal separation sets us up for “trauma brain” regardless of genetic predisposition to certain neurotypes. I first read about Nemeroff’s (1998) research involving rat pups separated from their mothers for a few hours a day during infancy and the impact this had on their neurological development, the effects of which persisted into adulthood, in a psychopharmacology textbook (Meyer & Quenzer, 2018). Other researchers are still performing these studies and documenting the same outcomes: anxiety, increased sensitivity to stress, depression-like behaviours, emotional dysregulation, eating disorders, and metabolic disorders throughout the rats’ lifespan. And unlike the rats, we adoptees aren’t returned to our mothers or siblings when that phase of the experiment ends. It’s not a perfect comparison, but research ethics officially prohibit doing similar maternal separation experiments on human infants. At least, now they do. Watch the documentary Three Identical Strangers and see for yourself.

My doctor who diagnosed me several years ago with ASD and Asperger’s syndrome told me at the start of my assessment that childhood trauma doesn’t cause autism (for that matter, neither do vaccines); it’s a genetic condition. However, I believe that developmental trauma such as early maternal separation may have a deeper impact on certain neurotypes; we may be more sensitive to early stressors or less resilient. Trauma responses may increase – or be mistaken for – neurodivergent traits. For example, adoptees, especially those of us adopted internationally and/or after our first birthdays like myself, can display self-calming/self-soothing behaviours (Tirella & Miller, 2011) that resemble what would be called “stimming” in autistic children and which I would call an attempt at emotional regulation following a profound loss. We adoptees don’t always have, or eventually get, access to our family medical history so we don’t know what we’re at risk for but as the rat studies found, the non-separated rats developed typically while their separated littermates, who shared the same DNA, did not. We don’t have to have a documented family history of autism, ADHD, anxiety, or depression to develop these traits after a severe developmental trauma.

While there is more understanding over the last few decades of the neurological impact of early maternal separation or parental loss that precedes adoption, there needs to be more research into how this overlaps with autism spectrum, ADHD, sensory processing differences and other neurodivergent conditions. My hope would be that adoptees’ needs and vulnerabilities can be addressed in early childhood when we would most benefit from interventions – and perhaps more can be done to prevent these traumatic separations in the first place.

Resources:

Meyer, J. S. & Quenzer, L. F. (2018). Psychopharmacology: Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, 2nd ed. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.

Tirella, L. G., & Miller, L. C. (2011). Self-Regulation in Newly Arrived International Adoptees. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 31 ), 301–314.

See Jodi’s part 1 of a 3 part series for Autism Awareness Month: Puzzle Pieces.

Defining Home

by Jess Schnitzer, adopted from China to the USA.

I am currently a first year student at the University of Washington, Seattle and finished with the course “Contemporary Issues of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans“. It was an eye-opening class, especially at the end where my lecturer talked about adopted Asian American issues.

For the final project of the class, the class was given an option to create a creative, reflective project, and being one of the only adopted AAPIA in class, I chose mine about my personal journey as an adoptee.

I thought I would share in case others may relate to the stories that I discussed. If anyone else is in college right now, I would totally recommend taking an Asian American Studies or American Ethnic Studies course. This course has made me feel even more connected to my Asian American identity and background. Thank you for giving me a community to share this in!

Defining Home by Jess Schnitzer

There Are Better More Sustainable Ways

by Yung Fierens, adopted from South Korea to Belgium.

Years ago, I was one of those lucky guys who could pull through Asia with the backpack on her own for almost half a year. It was a magical time when I got to meet many exciting, cool people, saw the sun take off in a temple in Angkor Wat and between the Akha Tribes in Laos. Hong Kong, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Bhutan, Singapore and Cambodia.

In the last country (Cambodia) I visited, one of the many orphanages where there were dozens of children waiting for adoptive parents, I was considering staying in the area for a while and volunteering there. I gave language lessons in english, art lessons, helped prepare meals. I would have to throw a pack of euros on the table to provide living and living because of course you can’t live on the wages of such an NGO. They need their money for those kids.

That was what I thought was going to happen, that was how I thought the situation was. Until friends who lived and worked on the scene in development aid and the experiences of others backpackers opened my eyes.

“These are not orphanages but straight tourist traps. The parents of those children are getting money to bring their offspring during the day to the so called orphanage where they are exhibited as monkeys, so that the owners can knock money out of the pockets of naive tourists.

The children are not being taught in the meantime and therefore learn nothing that can ever come in handy in a human life. When they get too big and the cuteness is over, then they get banned from those homes and end up back on the street as a beggar.

And yes, whoever wants can adopt a child if enough money is put on the table. Since Angelina Jolie’s oldest son came to be adopted / purchased here during Tomb Raider’s filming, the orphanage tourism has been booming.”

I therefore abandoned the plan and with two other backpackers, I chose to support a boy from a poor family so that he could go to school and get a diploma. He was the first in his village to learn english. The result is that not only did we help 1 young person with it, but he took the whole village out of misery. Thanks to him, other children are able to go to school, the local economy has started and … most importantly, no mother has to let her child leave for a faraway country to give it a better life.

I don’t feel like a benefactor, I have told few this story and won’t come out with it to reap admiration for it. I’m telling it to show that there are other and better, more sustainable and previously used ways to give children a better life without having to remove them from their surroundings.

Original in Dutch

Jaren geleden was ik één van die gelukzakken die bijna een half jaar in haar eentje met de rugzak door Azië kon trekken.

Een magische tijd waarin ik veel boeiende, toffe mensen heb mogen ontmoeten, de zon heb mogen zien opstijgen in een tempel in Angkor Wat en tussen de Akha Tribes in Laos hebben kunnen vertoeven. Hong Kong, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesië, Buthan, Signapore en Cambodia.

In dat laatste land heb ik één van de vele weeshuizen bezocht waar tientallen kinderen zaten te wachten op adoptieouders.

Ik overwoog om een tijdje in de streek te blijven en er vrijwilligerswerk te doen. Taallessen Engels, tekenles, helpen met het bereiden van maaltijden…ik zou er wel een pak euro’s voor op tafel moeten smijten om in kost en inwoon te voorzien. Want natuurlijk kan je niet op kap van zo’n NGO gaan leven. Die hebben hun centen nodig voor die kindjes.

Dat was wat ik dacht dat er zou gebeuren, dat was hoe ik dacht dat de situatie was.

Tot vrienden die ter plaatse woonden en werkten in de ontwikkelingshulp én de ervaringen van anderen backpackers me de ogen openden.

“Dit zijn geen weeshuizen maar regelrechte tourist traps. De ouders van die kinderen krijgen geld om hun kroost overdag naar dat zogenaamde weeshuis te brengen waar ze als aapjes in de zoo tentoongesteld worden zodat de eigenaars geld uit de zakken van naïeve toeristen kunnen kloppen. Ze krijgen intussen geen les en leren bijgevolg niets wat ooit van pas kan komen in een mensenleven. Als ze te groot worden en de schattigheid eraf is dan worden ze verbannen uit die tehuizen en belanden ze terug op straat als bedelaar. En ja, wie dat wil kan zo’n kind adopteren als er maar genoeg geld voor op tafel gelegd wordt. Sinds Angelina Jolie haar oudste zoon hier is komen adopteren/ kopen tijdens de filmopnames van Tomb Raider is het weeshuis toerisme geboomd.”

Ik heb het plan dan ook laten varen en heb ervoor gekozen om samen met nog twee andere backpackers waarmee ik in Laos terecht gekomen ben, een jongen uit een arm gezin financieel te ondersteunen zodat die naar school kon gaan en een diploma kon behalen. Hij was de eerste van zijn dorp die Engels zou leren. Het resultaat is dat we er niet alleen 1 jongen mee hebben geholpen maar dat die op zijn beurt het hele dorp uit de misérie heeft gehaald. Dankzij hem zijn er later andere kinderen naar school kunnen gaan, is er locale economie ontstaan en…hoeft er geen enkele moeder meer haar kind te laten vertrekken naar een ver land om het een beter leven te geven.

Ik voel me geen weldoener, ik heb weinigen dit verhaal verteld en kom er nu niet mee naar buiten om er bewondering mee te oogsten. Ik vertel het om te tonen dat er andere en betere, duurzamere en eerbaardere manieren zijn om kinderen een beter leven te geven zonder ze te moeten weghalen uit hun omgeving.

Balancing Love and Loss

by Bina Mirjam de Boer adopted from India to the Netherlands.
Originally shared at Bina Coaching.

Photo from the book : Children of Bombay

The love we feel for ourselves and for others is often determined by how we experienced our mother’s love as a child. Maternal love combined with the degree of “presence” of mother and child.

Have you received, lost, or is this an unfulfilled desire? Have you experienced safety or are you constantly alert and feel unsafe? Have you felt connected and live with the knowledge that you belong to something or is the feeling of being out of connection and not belonging always present?

If you balance with or without a safety net, do you have the courage to accept love and make the connection or move out of fear of loss and this creates isolation.

These processes are constantly taking place on a subconscious level. By creating awareness about this and allowing what wants to be seen, heard and or felt, you create a space in which you reduce the fear and allow love.

#AdoptieCoach
www.adoptiecoach.frl

Original in Dutch

Balanceren tussen liefde en verlies

De liefde die we voor onszelf en voor anderen voelen, wordt vaak bepaald door hoe jij als kind de liefde van je moeder hebt ervaren. Moederliefde in combinatie met de mate van “aanwezigheid” van moeder en kind.

Heb jij de moederliefde ontvangen, verloren of is dit een onvervuld verlangen. Heb jij veiligheid ervaren of ben je constant alert en voel jij je onveilig. Heb jij je verbonden gevoeld en leef je met de wetenschap dat je ergens toe behoort of is het gevoel van uitverbinding zijn en het niet toebehoren altijd aanwezig geweest.

Balanceer je met of zonder vangnet, durf jij de liefde te nemen en de verbinding aan te gaan of beweeg je vanuit de angst voor verlies en zorgt dit voor isolatie.

Deze processen spelen zich voortdurend op onbewust niveau af, door hierover bewustzijn te creëren en toe te laten wat gezien, gehoord enof gevoeld wil worden, creëren je een ruimte waarin je de angst verkleind en de liefde kan toelaten.

#AdoptieCoach
www.adoptiecoach.frl

Atlanta Consequences

by Kayla Zheng, adopted from China to the USA.

I am still processing the murder of 6 Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings. I have been posting and sharing throughout my social media accounts about my anger, my distrust, the audacity of law enforcement and society for protecting white terrorist fragility and blatant denial of racism. I can feel tension like a chink in my armour of forced composure. But I am not only processing this all as an Asian woman. I am also forced to process this threat as an Asian woman adoptee, who has been raised in a world and by people who look like that terrorist. Worse yet, I have been raised by people who have ideologies in similar veins of that terrorist. Where do I begin to grieve, where do I begin to process, how do I begin to let you know how I feel when I have spent the majority of my life living under the same roof of whiteness that claims to love me but harms people who look like me?

If I were to ask my white evangelical adoptive parents their feelings of the mass shooting in Atlanta, they will question if it was race based. After all, not all the victims were Asian. If I were to ask them if certain political leaders in powerful positions where responsible for fuelling anti-Asian sentiments, I would be met with “fake news”. But if I were to ask them if they love their Asian daughter, I would be met with “yes, however, I don’t see you as Asian, you are just our daughter”. How do I process a grief and fear so real and palatable, when it is ignored and denied by those who are supposed to be my forever protectors? How do I put it into words and wrap it, so it is presentable and comprehensible for others to see the contradictions? In this lies the problem, the problem with racism, its systemic and institutional power that is subtle but feels like bullets, and shrapnel, and death.

This is all to say that as much as my white adoptive evangelical parents claim to love me, they cannot love me. Because they cannot recognise the terrorism they have inflicted onto me my whole life. They cannot love me fully because their “colour blindness” has prevented them from seeing the whole spectrum of my identity and how I go through life. They cannot truly love all of me because they refuse to acknowledge their own racial bias towards me, and how they raised me in that environment. They cannot love me entirely because they cannot confront their whiteness, their own racism, and how they contribute to a culture of white supremacy.

I have had some extended adoptive family members reach out to me, reassuring that they care, letting me know they are worried for my safety. On the other hand, I have not heard one whisper from my immediate adoptive family. None of them. Their silence speaks volumes. I am still processing what it means to be Asian in America. I still think about the time I was told me to go back to where I came from, as if it was not whiteness that forcibly re-homed me to a country that despises me. To a country that sees me as a virus, a fetish, a communist spy, a threat and fantasy to be colonised from the East. I am still absorbing and trying to understand what the violence towards people that look like me means to me. I struggle with this all, but I struggle with this in addition to being an Asian female adoptee. I struggle to process what this means when the people I was raised by refuse to see me as an Asian woman. And that refusal could cost me my life.

Read Kayla’s most read article: Decolonizing Moses

Puzzle Pieces

by Jodi Gibson Moore born in the UK and adopted to Northern America.
This is part 1 of a 3 part series written for Autism Awareness Month.

April is Autism Awareness Month

         That’s what it’s been known as, anyway. Light it up blue. Puzzle pieces. Be aware of the ways our autistic kids differ from neurotypical children. Donate to “Autism Speaks.” And perhaps the most cringeworthy, “help us find a cure for autism.”

         As an autistic adoptee, not diagnosed until adulthood (41), the puzzle piece has always represented adoption to me. The missing piece. We are the missing piece from our blood families. We ourselves are missing our blood family (or in the case of kinship adoptees, our rightful place in it and at least some of our family). We’re missing our origin stories; our true names; our original birth certificates; our actual, unaltered identities; our family medical history…the list goes on. This puzzlement over our origins may eventually be resolved in reunion; for some adoptees, it never is.

         One of the often-cited autistic traits is the ability to notice patterns in things, so maybe that’s the reason why, since I began pursuing my own medical diagnosis, I’ve been noticing similarities or symptom overlap between developmental trauma (adoptee-specific and otherwise), autism spectrum, and other conditions often comorbid with ASD such as ADHD and sensory processing disorder (SPD). More about this in future posts.

         In an autistic context, the puzzle piece has an entirely different meaning and, perhaps not surprisingly to a population historically considered unable to speak for themselves, was developed and “used without input from the autistic community” (Crosman, 2019). Crosman explains that the originator of the puzzle piece symbol was “Gerald Gasson, a board member for the (UK) National Autistic Society. He and the rest of the board believed that autistic people suffered from a “puzzling” condition, so they adopted a logo of a puzzle piece with a weeping child, displaying the notion that autism is a tragedy that children suffer from. This visualization of autism has led to decades of autistic people receiving unwanted treatments and therapies to treat a disease that they don’t have.” (from “The Ableist History of the Puzzle Piece Symbol for Autism”, 2019).

         Crosman draws the puzzle piece debate into modern times with the puzzle piece ribbon symbol designed by the Autism Society of America in 1999, supposedly to raise awareness and increase early intervention, but she points out that this awareness usually involves “increased research of cures and treatments for autism” (2019), and intervention often includes controversial treatments like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Crosman criticizes ABA for “‘correct(ing) autistic behaviors by forcing autistic people to mask their autism” (2019). Masking, which I’ll cover in another post, is the exhausting and not always successful task of attempting to pass for “typical” in order to make neurotypicals more comfortable around us. So much for inclusion and acceptance.

         Crosman speaks for many autistic adults when she voices her criticisms of the puzzle piece and its implications that individuals on the autism spectrum are “incomplete” or “missing pieces”, suffering from a “disease”, and do not fit in with the rest of the world. Many autistics choose to discard the puzzle piece due to its ableist connotations and history; the infinity symbol, often in rainbow colors to represent the spectrum, is increasingly visible in the autistic community. Autistic females especially are replacing the “light it up blue” with red or gold, which, with the periodic symbol Au, can mean autism. Crosman (2019) points out that blue perpetuates the male gender bias in autism: historically, autism research was only conducted on males, and due to gender-biased diagnostic criteria, females are more likely to slip through the cracks in childhood, often pursuing a diagnosis ourselves as adults, as I did. Knowing now where the “blue” comes from, I’m not going to turn my Facebook profile picture blue this year.  

         The attitude that organizations such as Autism Speaks have toward autistic individuals, described by Crosman as “ableist” and “infantilizing” as they claim to speak for those actually affected by autism, reminds me of the way the adoption industry, the law, and society in general has treated generations of adoptees. As the original puzzle piece logo suggests, autism has historically been viewed as a childhood disorder, with very little discussion or research into autistic adults. Not to say the supports and accommodations in schools aren’t necessary. They are. But we don’t outgrow autism. What about accommodations in college, university, career training? What about supports in the workplace? In parenting? We often end up masking so that others won’t find out our “disability” and use it against us, and masking leads to burnout, as I will write in a future post. We grow up and we’re still autistic.

         Adoptees also grow up, while the law treats us as perpetual children. Most of us aren’t even allowed access to our own birth records. We are bound for life to a contract that we never signed, supposedly made on our behalf, but after we reach the age of majority we’re still adopted, and most courts won’t even think about releasing us from it, including in cases of abuse. After our adopters die, we’re still adopted. People apply the phrase “adopted child/children” to us into our 30s, 40s, 50s, after we have children and perhaps grandchildren of our own. Laws are beginning to change, but there are still many who consider us incapable of speaking up for ourselves regardless of our lived experience and advanced education. I understand that a legal declaration isn’t the same as neurological diversity, but I also know how it feels not to be taken seriously as the expert on your own life and struggles.

         The opinions and feelings expressed in my online autism groups leading up to this April remind me – in a good way – of adoptees coming together to “flip the script” for NAAM in November. Those who have not experienced our reality firsthand have spoken for us long enough, and now we’re speaking for ourselves. Our voices are diverse, but we’re not puzzled anymore. We’re finding our own fit.

         I’ll be here all month.   

For more from Jodi, check out her contributions to numerous publications including 4 adoptee anthologies:

It’s Not About You: Understanding Adoptee Search, Reunion & Open Adoption
The Adoptee Survival Guide: Adoptees Share their Wisdom and Tools
Adult Adoptee Anthology: Flip the Script
Adoption Therapy Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post Adoption Issues

From Thailand without an Identity

by Lisa Kininger, adopted from Thailand to the USA.

Lisa’s earliest photo

My name is Lisa and I am an intercountry adoptee. Thanks to my wonderful parents, they have given me a beautiful life that I’m forever grateful for. There is only minimum information about my true identity. What I do know isn’t enough to find out who I was and where I came from. Although I’m forever happy with who I’ve become and my beautiful family, I have always been curious about my true identity, as anyone else would be. I have tried absolutely everything from phone calls and emails to traveling to Thailand more than once, searching helplessly. So, when I turned 18, I decided to start my journey of searching.

I had reached out to the Thai doctor and his wife, from whom I was adopted. They were not interested in helping me but did explain that they put up 40 non-biological children for adoption. They would have their cooks and maids sign as fake biological parents. In effect, they also told me that they came up with my birth name “Malai” and the birth date 20 December 1972. They told me not to contact the people on my birth certificate as they would lie to me and take my money. With only the people on my birth certificate to reach out to, I desperately did so in hopes of finding more information. I eventually stumbled across DNA testing and used it to my advantage. 

My story starts with my father being an aircraft electrician as a Sr. Master Sergeant in the USA Air Force. My parents were married and stationed in Utapao, Thailand in 1974-1975. They were unable to have children of their own and were in the process of adopting in the USA but had to put it on hold due to being stationed in Thailand. 

One day my mother went to Bangkok to go grocery shopping at the base commissary. She ended up talking to a woman about the prices of meat and the woman had mentioned how she just had adopted a Thai baby girl. The woman said she knew of another Thai baby girl who was up for adoption. My mother said she would love to but unfortunately, they were leaving soon to go back to the USA, so there would be no time. While checking out at the shop, the same lady approached my mother with a phone number. The phone number was for the Thai baby girl who was up for adoption. My mother decided to call. She spoke with a woman who said unfortunately, she was adopted already. So sadly, my mother hung up the phone. Then suddenly, over the loudspeaker at the store, they announced my mother’s name. They said there was a phone call for her. On the other end of that line was a lady asking my mother to share about herself and my father. The lady said she didn’t know what came over her, but she felt the need to call. The lady said she had a Thai baby girl at her house who was very sickly. She wanted my mother to see the baby girl right away. So, the lady sent a car to pick up my mother from the store in Bangkok.

My mother arrived at the house. The people at the home were a Thai doctor and his American wife (this was the lady on the phone I talked to when I started my search, which is years after). They explained to my mother that the baby girl was very ill, only weighed 13 pounds and was rescued from the jungle. They also told her that the baby girl’s 5-year-old sibling died of malnutrition and the baby girl was going next. That baby girl was me. 

Soon my mother was able to meet me for the first time. She put me in her lap and I started to play with her watch. That’s when the people decided it was the perfect match. They did however also have a Dutch couple that was going to visit me in the morning. If the Dutch couple didn’t want me, then I was my mother’s. So, they put my mother up in a hotel suite that the doctor had organised. 

This was during the Vietnam war in 1974 and when my mother called my father to explain where she was and what was going on, my father became very worried as it was dangerous for civilians to be off base. Fortunately, the next morning the Dutch couple wanted a boy, and I could go home with my parents! The next step was for my father to get me adopted in Thailand. Adoptive parents had to be a certain age to adopt in Thailand and my parents were too young. The Thai doctor wanted my father to lie about his age and bribe the consulate with a bottle of whiskey. My father didn’t want to do such a thing because he was in the US AirForce and could get into substantial trouble. The Thai doctor then had to get ahold of my “biological mother” to sign a release form for my new parents to take me back to the the USA. The doctor arranged a visit with my father and my bio mother at a restaurant outside of Bangkok. The doctor explained to my father that she came from the south and that my father had to pay for her travel expenses. When they met at the restaurant, the doctor and my bio mother only spoke Thai; she signed and left. My father had no idea what was said. 

We happily left for the USA and I had a fantastic childhood. I had the privilege of seeing and living in different parts of the world, thanks to my father serving in the US AirForce. Throughout my childhood, I always had the desire to search for my biological family and to find the truth about myself. I remembered what the Thai doctor and wife told me which was to avoid contacting the people on my birth certificate as they would lie and take my money. I took a risk and didn’t listen to them. I decided my only choice was to find the people on my birth certificate so I contacted them. In the beginning they had said yes they are my family. They proceeded to ask if I was Mali or Malai. I then said I was Malai but asked who Mali was? They told me Mali was my sister. They said to call back the next day because they knew someone who could speak English. So I did and then they told me they were not my family, but knew of my family because they were neighbours at one time. They told me the family name and said I had an older sister who died in a car accident and the family had moved away. They asked me to call back in two weeks and they would help me try and find this family. They ended up not being able to find them.

As a result, I hired a private investigator in Thailand to find them and the investigator was successful. This family acknowledged I was part of their family and that my immediate family passed away but could locate my aunt, uncle and cousins. I was able to receive pictures of them and they were able to finish the story about me and knew the Thai doctor, so I believed them. 

This was in the early 2000s before DNA testing was well known. I took the initiative to take my first trip to Thailand to meet them. I gave them money because they were poor. My aunt had a stroke so I bought her a wheelchair, medication and food. I set up an international bank account so they could take out money when needed. They would even write to me and ask for more money throughout the years and said my aunt would die if I didn’t pay for her blood transfusion.

I decided to do a DNA test with my late sisters’ son and the results showed there was no relation at all between this family and me. Sadly, I gave up searching for a while. Eventually, as time passed, I contacted the people on my birth certificate again and they told me I am possibly theirs after all. So I did a DNA test with the biological mother on my birth certificate (this was when I booked my 2nd trip to Thailand with my family). Unfortunately two days before leaving for Thailand, the results revealed I was not related to her. We went on the trip anyway and met with her. When I met her in person, she told me that the doctor paid her to sign as my biological mother and that she was the one at the restaurant who met my adoptive father. 

Since then, I have done DNA tests with her husband’s side of the family and no luck. Unfortunately, I’ve done countless DNA tests only to find 3rd to 4th cousins and they have all been adopted as well so no help there either. The hard part with my search is that my identity in Thailand is fake. My true identity seems like it’s been erased from existence.

It has been challenging throughout my life, wanting to know the truth but being lied to consistently with no explanation as to why. I don’t know how old I am, my real name, or where I came from. Everybody that knows some truth REFUSES to help or tell me anything. I have a beautiful family with three grown children and I’m happily married but I would love to share with my children and one day, my grandchildren, my own biological family.

Through my journey, I relate to other adoptees feelings and emotions and so I have dedicated my time to helping other adoptees find their biological families for 20 years. I am a private investigator for adoptees. I understand both sides of the story and can empathise. Even though I haven’t found the end to my story, I find joy in helping others in their journey and I’ve also found what I was looking for via the actual journey itself.

Lisa can be contacted at lkininger@live.com