Learning Differences In Asian Students

Studies have shown that learning differences are as common among Asians as they are among other countries. Between 5% and 9% of the general population is impacted while approximately 6.3% of Chinese children live with ADHD, nearly 1% live with autism, and 11.32% of Indians, 26.2% of Indonesian, 2.49% of Pakistani, and 7.7% of Japanese children live with ADHD. Further, millions more are considered twice-exceptional, or 2e, meaning they’re exceptionally skilled in certain areas but also face learning and social challenges. Despite the prevalence of learning differences in Asian countries, these conditions are underdiagnosed and undertreated. Learning differences do not discriminate: rich or poor, highly educated or not, people from all walks of life can be affected.

‌Barriers To Treatment And Support

When learning challenges like ADHD and autism are left untreated, children often feel inadequate if they do not perform well academically. This typically leads to anxiety and depression, which can worsen if the learning differences remain undiagnosed or untreated. Children with autism, particularly, need extensive support to socialize, regulate emotions and navigate the world effectively. Children with autism are significantly more at risk for sexual abuse and grooming, death, or injury by preventable causes, depression, and co-existing conditions than typically developing children. But even with autism, children thrive when behavioral interventions and social-emotional education equip them with the skills to cope and adapt according to their strengths and weaknesses. When the symptoms of learning disabilities are untreated, communication challenges can easily turn into behavioral challenges, and consequently, disruption of family harmony.

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High-ability children with learning challenges — those who are perceived as gifted or particularly smart and talented — are unfortunately more likely to be overlooked, undiagnosed, and untreated since they often excel in other areas which might overcompensate for their weaknesses. These children are often acutely aware of how they are different from their peers and may struggle socially as well as in other areas. As such, they might experience even greater depression, anxiety, difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, and other coexisting conditions.

Cultural Beliefs

Children with learning differences face obstacles to getting the support they need in every language and culture, but the Asian community experiences unique challenges and cultural barriers to treatment. Families often want to avoid labeling their children and may deny that there is a problem at all. Commonly held beliefs and stigmas may prevent those living with learning challenges — or parents of children with learning challenges — from seeking treatment. 

For example, some believe that a learning challenge is due to an imbalance in energy. In China, some refer to learning differences as “canfei” or “canji,” which means the person living with learning differences is worthless to their family and society. In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh too, beliefs such as these often inflict shame, guilt, and embarrassment. They typically either encourage parents to hide their children’s obstacles or search for more traditional treatments, such as acupuncture or herbal remedies.

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Stigma And Fear

Until the ’80s, these beliefs also suggested that those with learning differences were of the lowest social status. While this theory has, for the most part, faded with time, it persists for some with more traditional beliefs. It can feel shameful to admit to such obstacles. While there are certainly many highly intelligent Asian American students, many still live with learning differences. However, the model minority myth makes it seem as though Asian American students do not need additional support or resources.  

No Access To Resources

Other obstacles come from issues not directly related to the cultural mindset but rather from challenges within the educational and healthcare systems. There is a lack of available resources and organizations to get help for children with learning differences in Asia, including Greater China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Some children — such as those with Asperger’s and ADHD — have been denied entry into regular schools out of a concern they might disrupt learning. They are told they will need to go to specialized schools, which isolate and exclude them from their communities.

Unfortunately, few schools in Greater China, Taiwan, and Singapore are equipped to teach those with learning disabilities. People living close to major cities, such as Hong Kong, or in major metropolitan areas in the United States, may have access to more resources. These can include more robust school systems, better local healthcare networks, and more Chinese-speaking therapists and providers. However, access is still limited almost everywhere. Residents of smaller provinces or rural areas in the United States have little to no resources at all. Even families who can secure ongoing therapies spend months to years on waitlists due to a lack of providers.

Health insurance and the costs of healthcare vary by location, too. Simply finding the necessary resources can be challenging enough. Still, the high costs prevent a large number of people from seeking the medical support they need, including social-emotional and behavioral support for their children.

Lack Of Awareness

Learning challenges can be difficult to diagnose due to a general lack of awareness and understanding. There is no comprehensive or definitive list of symptoms that fits every child, making challenges difficult for parents and teachers to detect. 

Often, the symptoms children experience can easily be written off as a lack of interest or an unwillingness to do schoolwork. For example, some assume low test scores in school stem from laziness–a lack of studying on the student’s part. 

Additionally, some children mask the symptoms they feel, keeping the adults in their lives from noticing the obstacles in the first place. Without the awareness that the child has learning differences and what that means, parents won’t know to advocate for accommodations to ease their learning path.

The Cost of Inaction

Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away: if a child’s learning differences go unrecognized and/or untreated, it can lead to many more serious problems down the road. Some of the most common things you can expect are:

  • Children who do not receive support for their learning differences typically continue to struggle throughout their school careers. This could potentially impact their ability to get into college, and graduate, affecting their entire future.
  • Struggling through school activities can induce stress and anxiety. Long-term exposure to these can lead to more severe health problems, including gastrointestinal disorders, strokes, heart attacks, and more. Being bullied at school and in the workplace increases the risk of depression and potentially suicide.
  • Between the potential mental, emotional, and physical effects, untreated learning differences can make it difficult to function in daily life, work a steady job, have interpersonal relationships, and raise a family in the future. 
  • Many adults with learning disabilities and never received support as children grow to have negative feelings towards caregivers for ignoring their needs. They wonder how much better their life could have been if they’d gotten help instead.


There are many ways to help ensure that Chinese children with learning differences get the attention they need. A few solutions for parents to try are listed below. 

  • Educate yourself...because nobody will care more about your child than you! Familiarize yourself with developmental milestones and stages. Become an expert in your child’s unique way of learning. Formal evaluations provide precious information that can be used to help your child succeed in the future. After identifying the specific obstacles their child faces, parents can gather information from the internet, medical sources, and libraries. The more parents can learn, the more prepared they can be to help and understand their children.
  • Advocate for the child. Parents should talk to the child’s teachers, school counselors, and medical doctors to share their concerns and ask for information on available resources. Know that these people are here to help you: they want your child to succeed, too.
  • Speak with the child about their obstacles. The child will know better than others what they feel and their struggles. Going straight to the source can provide invaluable insight. Listen with compassion and try not to compare or judge. Your child is a unique human with their own perspective. For children with speech delays or absent speech, observing and playing can show you what delights and what frustrates your child and highlight what they need help with. Make sure you talk to and interact with children with delayed speech as much or more than their siblings.
  • Learn how your child learns. Not all children learn through the same methods. For example, some learn better through seeing, some through hearing, and some through doing. Some children need lots of practice while others have already moved on to the next thing. By learning how their child learns best, parents can provide activities and resources to help, reaping rich rewards. 
  • Think lifetime success — not just academic success. School is an essential part of a child’s life, but it’s only a part. Parents can help ensure success throughout life by helping build their child’s sense of self-worth, teaching that it is OK to ask for help, and encouraging them to be resilient. 
  • Get a support team. Whether it’s a private behavior therapist, online programs, or performance coach, experiment and find out what works best for you and your family. Many ABA agencies have year-long waitlists. If this is your situation, consider curaJOY for virtual behavior therapy. curaJOY encourages, supports, and improves social-emotional education in a gamified approach that is easily accessible and affordable — and private. The approach is personalized, allowing children to work at their own pace from the comfort of their own homes. 

Take Advantage Of Digital Solutions In Social Emotional Learning

If your child lives with any learning differences, help is at the tip of your fingers. At curaJOY, we offer effective, science-backed behavioral health support to build children’s emotional fitness, with language support in both Mandarin Chinese and English. Our Quest Depot helps assess your child’s strengths and weaknesses to create a personalized road map to help your child achieve optimal social-emotional results. 

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