by Jessica Davis, adoptive mother in the USA who adopted from Uganda and co-founded Kugatta, an organisation that re-connects Ugandan families to their children, removed via international adoption.
The lie we love. Adoption.
I’ve heard people say that adoption is one of the greatest acts of love, but is it? Maybe what adoption is and has been for the majority of people isn’t really as “great” of an act as it has been portrayed to be.
Instead of us focusing on the fairytale imagery of the new “forever family” that is created through adoption, we should be focusing on how adoption means the end of a family; the absolute devastation of a child’s world resulting in the separation from everyone and everything familiar to them. When the focus is misplaced, we aren’t able to truly help the child and as a result often place unrealistic expectations on them. Expectations of gratefulness, bonding, assimilation and even expecting them to “move on” from their histories.
So what reason is acceptable enough to permanently separate a family? Poverty? If a family is poor is it okay to take their child? OR wouldn’t it be more loving and more helpful to invest time and resources into economically empowering the family so they can stay together?
If a child has medical needs the family is struggling to meet is it then okay to take their child OR is it a greater act of love and human decency to assist that family so they can meet the needs of their child and remain together?
If a family has fallen on hard times is it then okay to take their child? OR should we rally around the family and help them through the difficult time so they can remain together?
What about a child that has lost both their parents? Is it then okay to adopt the child? OR would it be a greater act of love to first ensure the child gets to live with their biological relatives, their family? Why is it better to create a new family with strangers when there are extended biological relatives?
What if a child lives in a developing country? Is it then better to take a child from their family to give them access to more “things” and “opportunities”? To give them a “better life”? Is it even possible to live a “better life” separated from one’s family? OR would it be a greater act of love to support that family so their child can have access to more things and opportunities within their own country? To build up the future of that country, by investing in and supporting that child so they can become the best they can. How does it help a developing country if we keep needlessly taking away their future doctors, teachers, social workers, public service workers, etc.?
I don’t know much about domestic adoption but I know a lot about intercountry adoption and these are some of the many reasons I hear over and over as validation for the permanent separation of a child from their family, biological relatives and country of origin.
Parents and extended family were given no option (other than adoption) when seeking help/assistance. What choice is there when there is only one option given? Not only are the majority of these families not given any options they are often told their child will be “better off” without them and that keeping their child is preventing them from these “great opportunities”. This mentality is wrong and harmful to their child.
So much of the adoption narrative is constructed around a need to “rescue” an impoverished child by providing a “forever family” yet 70%-90% of children adopted abroad HAVE FAMILIES. What other things do we continue doing in adoption knowing 4 out 5 times we are doing wrong?
Some say the greatest act of love is adoption, I say the greatest act of love is doing everything in one’s power to keep families together.
I titled this post The Lie we Love because it seems that so many of us love ADOPTION (and the fairytale often perpetuated by it) more than we love THE CHILD themselves. This is demonstrated every time a child is needlessly stripped from their family and culture, all while we as a society cheer on and promote such a process. This happens when we aren’t first willing to do the hard task of asking the tough questions; when we would rather ignore the realities at hand and live the “fairytale” that some problem was solved by adopting a child who already had a loving family.
Someday, I hope things are different: that more and more people will come to realize there isn’t an orphan crisis but rather, there is a family separation crisis happening in our world and adoption is not the answer, in fact it’s part of the problem. Intercountry adoption has become a business with massive amounts of money to be made and little to no protections for those most vulnerable because most of us sit in our comfortable first worlds and are happy with the fairytale. Adoption is truly the lie we love!
by Lynelle Long (Founder of ICAV adopted from Vietnam to Australia) & Angela Bennett adopted from South Korea to the USA, living with different abilities.
Last year due to COVID, I ran a number of online video group events to allow our adoptee community some interaction given the restrictions and isolation around the world. Whilst doing this, I had the honour of Angela attending one of my events and I did not realise she is differently abled and during the group video discussion, I realised I needed to make accomodations to ensure all people could participate equally and with sensitivity. Some time after that event and in January this year, I collaborated with a few Australian intercountry adoptees to put together our first paper on lived experience of disability AND being intercountry adopted – in the context of a response to a Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect & Exploitation of People with Disability. It again reminded me to consider how I could help make our spaces more inclusive. So I wrote to Angela and asked her for feedback on what could be done better. I’m sure there are other leaders like myself who don’t mean to be un-inclusive, it’s more that if we don’t live with those differences we aren’t actually forced to think about HOW we might better accomodate others. Angela was very positive and helpful and I wanted to share her thoughts because I figured if I can learn from this, perhaps others can too.
Here’s what I wrote to Angela:
Angela, I wondered if you could give me some good thoughts/ideas on how to do things better for adoptees who are differently abled. I was so happy to have you participate in my last ICAV online event but I felt so out of my depth to provide it in a better way to allow you fully participate. I’m always happy to hear your views and suggestions on how I can improve!
Here’s what Angela wrote to me in response:
That last ICAV event was awkward for me. Inclusion for people with disability is a lot to undertake. I think it’s pretty awesome you want to try to tackle it. It looks different based on the disability.
I’d say for me with the speech impediment, I talk 3x slower than the average American. There’s nothing wrong with my intellect. There’s certain sounds or combination of sounds that is like mouth gymnastics. So be mindful to avoid cutting me off/interrupting to finish my sentence for me. It’s better to wait about three to five seconds to make sure I’m done speaking. I often have to pause to inhale for another set of words. Cutting me off just resets from the beginning. Because I talk slower, I feel like I’m long winded. I get needing to have time to let others speak. I often wait until others speak. This is because I’m trying to see if I can simply say, “I agree,” or “So-and-so made a good point, and I also think _,” and just go from there to do less talking.
When I’m done speaking and you’re facilitating/hosting, to benefit the others, you did good in repeating or paraphrasing my point. In your position I would just do that, but start with, “What I think you said, __, is that __. Am I understanding correctly? This helps the other adoptees who have a hard time deciphering my speech pattern and acknowledges in a kind polite way what I said. If you, yourself can’t understand using the following statements can be helpful: “I didn’t catch what you said after __” It’s hard to hear you, can you repeat that last sentence? Can you speak louder? I/we want to understand but not sure of what was said. Can you say it in a different way? I think you said, ‘porcupine,’ but I don’t know what you’re trying to say. Is that like the animal with spikes on it? (wait for response) Oh, you said concubine not porcupine! Ha ha, that makes much more sense now. I have no idea what you’re trying to say. What I think/heard/believe you’re saying is __? That doesn’t make sense. Do you mind clarifying?
I get winded so sometimes I pause mid-word, mid-sentence, mid-answer to take a breath and regain control of the different muscles needed to speak. Sometimes this could be the diaphragm, sometimes the vocal cords, sometimes it’s my tongue and saliva control. It doesn’t hurt to speak, but it can sometimes quickly tire me.
If you’re video/audio recording an adoptee with speech that is challenging to understand, I recommend providing closed captions or subtitles or at minimum a timestamped transcript. This brings the inclusiveness not just to someone with a speech delay or impediment, but brings inclusiveness to those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
I’ve only provided an answer in the context of someone with a speech delay, speech impairment. People often assume someone with speech problems have lower intellect. While it is predominantly true, it is not a safe assumption. Most of what I’ve said is a form of what is called “active listening.” One important thing is that there is a distinction between not hearing what someone says and not knowing/comprehending. Simply saying, “what?” suggests the speaker needs to repeat what they said, but louder.
My speech pattern often means I drop sounds and I’m not even aware of it. I know English has a lot of silent sounds to begin with. But I drop out sounds that I have trouble forming or combining. So I might drop the “s” from thanks even unaware that I dropped the ‘s’ sound because most of my effort went to making the “th” sound. I know the words, I just have to get everything to work together to verbalise.
If you want me to type in chat, circle back around. I type fast, but I mouse slow. You can say something like, “I’d love to know what you think Angela. Do you want to answer or should we come back and check the chat in a couple minutes? Then maybe you can use a strategic stall tactic and say, “I want to add my own thoughts here for a minute.”
Avoid cross talk. Cross talk is rude. Short example was the post you responded to which I wrote about on my FB wall. The driver was talking about meto my friend. I was right there. The statement itself is rude, but the more important thing is that not only was he stereotyping someone who uses a wheelchair, but stereotyping that I am not capable of carrying on a conversation. When things like that happen I have no way of knowing if this is someone not comprehending my speech patterns, or he/she has a hearing problem, or if they are discriminating against me, if they have listening problems, if they are stereotyping my speech and assuming I am not intelligent/educated enough, or if it’s a microaggression based on something else like culturally am I not supposed to speak on my own behalf because of racism towards Asian females. I heard a parent explain it to her child once. “There’s nothing wrong with the way she is talking to us. She talks differently and it means we have to listen more closely to what she says.”
During a conversation you can even ask, “Do you want to add anything and/or did you have more to say?” Silently moving your own mouth to mimic someone else talking while they are talking is mildly rude and annoying for long conversations, but it’s not significantly offensive generally speaking.
Even persons with disabilities have ableist ideas against someone else with a disability. Much like the adoptee community has its ideas of “adoption is good” v. “adoption is corruption” even in local disabled groups …. I recently went to a popular sports bar. I asked the waitstaff for closed captions to be turned on the tv. The waitstaff didn’t want to figure it out unless someone in our group was deaf. So the group leader shushed me. I was appalled because it felt like the group leader who is paralysed was not being mindful of someone with a different disability and that was the whole point, to be a social support group.
I’d love to see and am also willing to assist with developing a media/guide for intercountry adoptees with disability or even more of a series of stories from adoptees with disability themselves.
Thank you Angela for sharing from your lived experience to help us do better!
by Christina Soo Ja Massey, aka YooNett adopted from South Korea to the USA.
The Tears of Trauma I cry as a helpless Orphan, I cry as an Adult throughout my Life.
This piece of art deals primarily with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Trauma of being abandoned, left to fight for my Life, but being unable to do so … The fear, anxieties and hopelessness of the situation. I attempted to convey how this Trauma persists throughout my Life. I have come to my Adopters already deeply scared only to relive old Experience via new Scars.
I am an orphan for a few months. I’ve been crying since October 2017 for my adoptive mother and I miss my adoptive father since July 2020.
I know all my life that the world is harsh and missing empathy. Lots of questions sit crying in my heart. Am I longing for the safety of the past? Or do I prefer to travel to a paradise in the future?
My name is Ramon C Manjula. In 1984 I was born and adopted from the city of Kalutara, Sri Lanka. I was seven weeks old.
In me there is a melancholy that borders depression but passes by itself ’cause yes, what more can a therapist say?
I can’t maintain friendships nor find a girlfriend. I can’t go with compliments like, “You can have any woman you want because you are such a beautiful man”. It’s horrible those questions like, “What about women, Ramon?” or, “How is it that someone like you doesn’t have a girlfriend?”
After a life full of well-intentioned praises but without a relationship, I’m at home lonely and disrupted.
A few years ago, in the summer of 2016 — during a party for adopted Sri Lankan people like me — I met more misunderstanding and hurtfulness than a soul mate. I now realise that disappointed and hurt me. For years I screamed that pain with rage and disgust.
The woman who said she “really liked me” and that I was “a beautiful man” but “didn’t feel anything else for me”, pushed me back to the time when my biological mother did love me, but more or less said, “Sorry, I reject you, I will not take care of you”.
But also years before that I struggled with questions about life and asked: “Who or what is God?” As a result, I have started to deepen myself into religion just by watching documentaries, watching films of biblical stories et cetera.
Only around September 2011 did I start to deepen into Islam. I have also been guided — like 99.9 % of humanity do — by corrupt media. Why do recitations of the Quran miraculously disappear from YouTube?
More and more I learned about the vision of life behind the second largest religion in the world. About not drinking alcohol, not using drugs and smoking cigarettes. And especially about the the theological base. What has really changed, denied and corrupted over the centuries through the alleged innocent Roman Catholic Church?
I always wanted to address the world with a vision that would have value even after my death. So I’ve blown characters into life and started processing theological facts with them into a thriller.
For nine years I’ve toiled on the first part of my life’s work but now after everything I’ve been through, I’ve learned about humanity, myself and the world. Today I declare my message that man has completely lost his way with: “The pilgrims trip to a lost paradise.”
*** What do you think? Can writing a book be therapeutic? ***
I was adopted to a white family in the south of Sweden from north India in the late 70’s and as soon as I arrived in Sweden, I was told to stop speaking weird and that I was now Swedish. We never spoke about India growing up. If I did ask, I received short answers then a lecture on how horrible India is with crimes, rape, child marriage and killings of baby girls. Because that’s all India is, right? Thank colonisation! I had a packed bag next to my bed with the clothes and jewellery brought from India, just in case.
The trauma of growing up like this invited self-hate and suicidal thoughts and I can’t tell you what stopped me, but animals were my best friends who I would seek solace from when low. There was never a mention of race, only how lucky I was to be brown and my eyebrows and hair would be ridiculed to the point that I would pluck my eyebrows to near extinction and colour my hair to breaking point. I heard talk about race hate but since I’m white, why would this apply to me? I was a white person on the inside who didn’t like to get her photo taken or look at herself in the mirror, as it was a reminder of my colour. I was a white person living in a white world without benefitting from what this means. People from India are not represented in mainstream fashion, music, films and the media and many think that by using one person of colour, they’ve represented us all.
Growing up without anyone looking like me caused much trauma as I found it very hard to accept myself and to find my identity. I wasn’t accepted as white yet this was what I identified as. I wasn’t accepted as Indian but didn’t identify as such. In my early 20’s, when I started to travel abroad more, I realised how uncomfortable I was in my own skin and if a person of colour walked into the room, or anyone mentioned the word, I found it uncomfortable as I realised they were also talking about me. I would divert the topic to something else whenever possible. I started noticing I was often the only person of colour in most rooms, especially in equestrian training and competition which was my whole life growing up.
I have dreamt and fought to become a filmmaker since I was very young. I pursued this despite my family who didn’t see it as a profession, within a Swedish college who didn’t accept me where university tutors laughed in my face on several occasions, amongst funding bodies who excluded transracial adoptees, with Scottish filmmakers who would not let me in and deleted my credentials on a film crew database. I have read many personal statements by Swedish people of colour who relocated to America for a chance at progression within their field. I too was accepted there when I finally gained the courage to apply to do an MA in filmmaking at their two most prestigious filmmaking universities. Do you still think I should be grateful?
The first time I met Indian people after being adopted was when I moved to Scotland, I was 24 years old and so intrigued and uncomfortable. In my mindset I still saw myself as white and did not relate what was happening to me to be about race. I was cautious of Black people and saw myself above Asians, just in a way I imagine white people do but can’t explain how or why. It kept me safe, mentally. Sometimes I miss this, it was easier to handle than the truth.
In 2020, I became more active in anti-racism activities as I know others who did and I joined many social media groups. There was one particular Scottish group where I live which made me feel very uncomfortable because I was faced by many people of colour with strong confident voices. I found my own without being shut down or drowned out by white people and I came to realise everything which was stolen from me: my culture, my beliefs, my voice as a person of colour, my dignity, my heritage, my language and my roots, my identity. I was sold for profit to privilege others but for which I would never experience the privilege through the Christian faith which I was brought up with. I felt so betrayed. When I continuously keep hearing from my white acquaintances and friends that “You get what you put in”, I started to believe I was just lazy and untalented. I did not take into account their head start and the extra hurdles I have on my journey as a person of colour. It’s a lot to take in and I’m SO ANGRY!! Do you still think I should be grateful?
As I started to strip away the whiteness I inherited via adoption, I came to realise that some things are harder than others to remove. My language still needs altering in some ways and I find myself apologising in horror as I become more aware. A few months ago I was asked why I keep using the word “coloured”. It never occurred to me that I was saying it and I’ve even told others off on many occasions for using it. In Swedish, “coloured” is “färgad” and digging deeper I realise it’s still widely used in media and by people in everyday language. After having spoken to several Swedish people and observing the media, I’ve come to realise that there is no alternative wording, so I have decided to establish it, about time!
In Sweden, the English phrases are used and never translated as it makes it more palatable for white people and puts distance between the person and the issue. I have created a Swedish anti-racism page as I really believe in creating the changes needed with a less interactive approach giving white fragility no space. There’s so much about my upbringing I need to unpack and unlearn. The majority of Swedish social media and anti-racism pages I’ve found so far speak only of the prejudice Jewish people face as it’s what white people feel comfortable with. This is not racism through, it’s antisemitism.
I wear my colour/oppression on my skin for all to see and at no point can I ever hide or change this. Why is all this important when talking about my trauma as an intercountry adoptee? Because it shows the very deeply rooted racist societies in which Black and Brown are sold and the deeply rooted internal racism it creates in us. I hate myself for being like this but I hate the people who did this to me more. Hate is a strong word, I’m making no excuses for using it. It’s mental abuse, violence and rape. Do you still think I should be grateful?
I’m now re-building myself as an Indian woman. A person of colour. A transracial intercountry adoptee and I’ve found yoga is helping me heal although I feel like I’m culturally appropriating it, I know it’s my culture and I have every right to it. Recently I found out I was born a Hindu, so my deep connection to yoga is natural. The more I decolonise yoga, the more I decolonise myself. The most damaging incidences to my healing process have been Indian people speaking down to me for not having grown up there, not speaking any of the languages, nor knowing the culture or religions well, nor dressing in traditional Indian clothing or cooking Indian foods.
For those who are Indian, you are so lucky to have what was denied me. You’re so lucky to know the smells, roots and the love of our beautiful country. I have as much right to any part of it as you and as I’m still learning, I’m grateful to now have understanding people in my life helping me heal. I have privilege in that my accent and whitewashed ideologies fits into Swedish life and people raised in India have privilege in that they didn’t live through the trauma of losing their whole identity via being sold off, and didn’t grow up with the same level of internalised racism, nor seeing parts of the culture on display and being sold back to them. I believe that my inquisitive nature and yearning to learn is the reason why I’ve been open to change and (un)learning. I’ve educated myself on Black history and the trauma of colonialism.
I believe that as an adult it’s my responsibility to educate myself and learn what I can do to make this world safe for everyone. I am currently working on a documentary film and a book about my life and journey. I recognise many of us are doing this. Our experiences are unique and they’re ours. We all have different ways of coping and I have big trust issues with white people, especially Christians. I see a lot of white centring in my daily life and white adoptive parents speaking about how transracial adoption affected them and the trauma they faced. I’m healing every day and writing this was a step forward.
I have one question for you. Do you support human trafficking? There’s no “but”, just as I could also ask, “Do you support racism?” There’s only “Yes” or “No”. If you would like to support and help children, have a look at what you can do.
by Kara Bos, born in South Korea and adopted to the USA.Kara became the first Korean intercountry adoptee to fight legally and win paternity rights to her Korean father.
Almost one year ago it was confirmed that 오익규 was my father. It’s the first time I’ve publicly shared my father’s name.
As I walk under these beautiful Cherry Blossoms and appreciate their beauty my heart continues to attempt to mend after being shattered into a million pieces over the course of one year. The confirmation in DNA in knowing who my father was, brought a sense of victory when I was constantly faced with uncertainty and being told I was wrong. The continued lack of communication, inhumane treatment and not allowing me to meet my father by his family pushed me to fight back, and reclaim my identity.
June 12th, 2020 marked the date that I was recognised by Korean law that 오익교 was my father, and I was added into his family registry as 오카라, which should have been done back in 1981 when I was born. This again was a victory of reclaiming what was lost, justice rectified. I was no longer an orphan, with parents unknown, and no identity. However, my one and only meeting will forever be etched into my memory and heart as a horror movie. One filled with regret and what if’s….as I found out later, from August he was taken to the hospital and stayed there until his death on December 3rd, 2020 (86 yrs).
If I hadn’t filed the lawsuit in November 2019, I wouldn’t have known in April 2020 that he was my father, I would never have met him and I wouldn’t know now that he has passed.
Even if this heart break has been immense, at least I know … that’s what it means to be adopted.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!