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KELSEY WU, Harvard College '23

The Loneliness Disease: Challenges of FirstGeneration Chinese-American Parents of Autistic Children

THURJ Volume 12 | Issue 2


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder characterized by social communication differences, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests, affects about 1 in 59 children in the United States. While numerous studies examine the experience of parenting an autistic child in the United States, few investigate that of first-generation Chinese-American parents of autistic children. These parents often carry mainland Chinese perceptions of autism, including cultural stigma and social pressure surrounding the disorder. As a result, they face unique challenges while reconciling their Chinese impressions of autism parenting with the unfamiliar American experience. Differences in the age of diagnosis, linguistic terminologies, special education and intervention opportunities between China and the United States, and effective parental social support networks also present additional challenges for first-generation Chinese-American parents. This paper examines the challenges that this community faces in the parenting process and proposes a policy—one that utilizes the anonymity of social networks—for American social service providers. In order to facilitate these parents’ navigation of the American service system, American social service providers should cultivate more culturally effective services.

The Loneliness Disease: Challenges of First Generation Chinese-American Parents of Autistic Children

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), or autism, affects 1 in 160 children worldwide (World Health Organization, 2017) and about 1 in 59 children in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Symptoms of autism emerge during early childhood and are most commonly characterized by social communication differences, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Since autism is a life-long neurodevelopmental disorder that hinders social interaction and communication, parents of autistic children often shoulder larger psychosocial burdens than parents of typically developing children. In particular, for parents unfamiliar with the disorder and its implications, an autism diagnosis not only establishes a social divide between themselves and their child, but also evokes many questions about their child’s future, engendering emotions of denial, confusion, and frustration. In a study conducted across four Kaiser Permanente Regions serving more than 8 million Health Plan subscribers (KP Northern California, KP Southern California, KP Northwest, and KP Georgia), parents of autistic children felt that their child’s problem behavior took a toll on their family and reported concern about their child’s future (Becerra, Massolo, Yau, & Owen, 2017). Additionally, after diagnosis, these parents reckon with the difficulty of navigating American service systems, including social service, healthcare, and special education, to find effective interventions for their child.

While numerous studies examine the experience of parenting an autistic child in the United States, few investigate that of firstgeneration Chinese-American parents of autistic children—for the purposes of this paper, this term refers to parents who emigrate from China to the United States and birth an autistic child in the United States. These parents face unique challenges while reconciling their Chinese perceptions of autism, dubbed as the “loneliness disease” when translated from its Chinese term 孤独症 (gu du zheng), with the unfamiliar and different American experience. Often times, these parents not only lack understanding of the disorder and evidence-based treatments offered by service providers in the United States (Wang, 2016), but also reckon with social pressure and familial isolation due to Chinese cultural beliefs about disability (Wong, 2007). Substantial differences in perceptions of autism and autism parenting between the two cultures hinder ChineseAmerican parents from gaining access to and taking advantage of the American services system.

American social support programs for parents of autistic children—which typically target parents with American perceptions of autism—often do not provide effective support for ChineseAmerican populations due to the cultural discrepancies between Caucasian-American and Chinese-American parents (Wang, 2016). The unique needs of first-generation Chinese-American parents, therefore, often remain unaddressed, leading to elevated levels of parental stress in these Chinese-American parents (Wang, 2016). For first-generation Chinese-American parents of autistic children, access to culturally effective education and training from American service providers might facilitate adjustment to the unfamiliar experience of parenting an autistic child in the United States. This paper aims to cover the unique experiences of these parents and proposes potential methods of culturally effective support for Chinese-American parents from American service providers. While this culture-specific support could apply towards many aspects of the American services system, this paper specifically targets social service providers.



We analyze the income profiles of Asian immigrants from China, India, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. In our classification, "immigrants" encompass individuals who are born in any of the six Asian countries, irrespective of whether they later became naturalized citizens in the U.S. On the other hand, we designate "natives" as white males born in any of the 50 U.S. states.

Our dataset comprises all available decennial census data spanning from 1970 to 2000, as well as the pooled 2009-2011 and 2019-2021 American Community Surveys (ACS). The ACS is currently the largest available survey that includes information on race/ethnicity and socioeconomic characteristics. For simplicity, we refer to the pooled 2009-2011 and 2019-2021 ACS survey data as 2010 and 2020 censuses, respectively. 

As is customary in labor force studies, we limit our native and immigrant sample to male adults of working age (18 to 65). We also restrict our immigrant sample exclusively to males who immigrated to the U.S. after turning 18 to ensure the tracking of cohorts across censuses is unaffected by subsequent waves of immigrants who arrive as children. This accounts for the possibility that immigrant children likely assimilate faster than their adult counterparts due to their integration into the American education system.

Regression Equations

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We estimate the following regression model in each of the census cross-sections from 1970 to 2020 and for each country of origin.

The dependent variable is the logarithm of the total pre-tax wage and salary income earned by a worker i in cross-section t and in cohort c compared to natives. The regressors include the worker’s age introduced as a third-degree polynomial,      . 

       are the fixed effects of a specific cohort in a given cross-section. We also control for education, which represents the observable differences in skills between Asian immigrants and natives. Finally, the regression model includes a fixed effect for the immigrant cohort that arrived on or before 1949 so that the earliest cohort starts at 1950.

Main Results

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Tables 1-6 display regression coefficients for all six Asian countries. In contrast to Borjas’s (2015) findings, where he observed that immigrants of all races and ethnicities in more recent cohorts had relatively lower entry wages compared to earlier cohorts, our study reveals a different trend among Asian immigrant cohorts. Specifically, we find that more recent Asian immigrant cohorts tend to experience either improved or similar levels of initial wage disadvantage upon entry compared to older cohorts for all six Asian countries.

For example, when we control for age and education, Chinese immigrants who arrived in 1965 and 1975 earned approximately 70% less than natives during their first decade in the U.S. However, Chinese immigrants who arrived in 2005 earned around 50% less than natives, and this wage gap was further reduced to approximately 30% for the latest wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in 2015. This indicates an improvement in the initial wage disadvantage over time. Similarly, Indian immigrants experienced an initial wage disadvantage of around 50-60% compared to natives for the 1965 and 1975 cohorts, but this gap diminished with each subsequent cohort and eventually closed entirely by 2020. On the other hand, Filipino immigrants exhibited a relatively stable pattern, starting with the 1965 and 1975 cohorts earning around 50-60% less than natives upon arrival, and this wage disadvantage persisted in successive cohorts, plateauing at around 48-53% in 2005 and 2015. In contrast, Korean immigrants from the 1975 to 2005 cohorts had a wage gap of approximately 60% relative to natives, which reduced to around 40% in 2015, indicating a modest level of improvement relative to earlier cohorts. These examples either contradict Borjas's findings on lower entry wages for immigrants overall or demonstrate no significant changes in the long-term trend of entry wages for specific Asian countries.

Next, we define the rate of economic assimilation as the pace at which the wage gap between migrants and natives narrows over time. In contrast to Borjas’s (2015) findings on the slowdown of assimilation rates in successive cohorts over time for immigrants of all origins (referred to as “cohort effects”), we find no substantial evidence of this collective assimilation pattern in successive cohorts for all six Asian countries.
For instance, when examining Korean and Japanese immigrants, we observe that the wage differential relative to natives for the 1950-1975 cohorts closed within their first decade upon arrival in the U.S., but it did not close as rapidly for subsequent cohorts within the first decade. Similarly, all Indian cohorts experienced rapid assimilation, with the wage gap closing for each cohort within their first five or ten years in the U.S. In contrast, Chinese immigrants experienced slower rates of assimilation, as seen in the 1950 and 1960 cohorts, where their wages were, on average, at a disadvantage of around 25.7% and 38.9%, respectively, compared to their native counterparts. This wage gap closed, as demonstrated in the 1990 and 2000 censuses, respectively, after 40 years of their residence in the U.S. Likewise, Vietnamese cohorts generally experienced much slower assimilation, with the wage gap closing for each cohort after 40 years of residency in the U.S.

While the analyses above focus on the rate of assimilation over time between different countries, Figures 1-6 show the rate of assimilation between cohorts within a single country across time. We have normalized the wages for each cohort so that the logarithm of the wage at the time of entry is 0, thereby capturing the cohort effects and allowing us to visualize how cohorts evolve over time. 

When examining the graphs for Indian, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese immigrants, a general trend emerges where older cohorts tend to exhibit a higher rate of assimilation. However, in contrast, the graph for Chinese immigrants reveals that more recent cohorts experience a greater rate of assimilation.
In summary, immigrant cohorts from each Asian country display unique and divergent trends, indicating the absence of any clear, uniform pattern. This finding contradicts the "model minority" myth that suggests a consistent pattern of success among Asian immigrant cohorts.


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From our data, we observe that recent cohorts of Asian immigrants tend to have either higher or similar relative wages upon entry compared to older cohorts across all six Asian countries. Additionally, there is no consistent pattern in the rates of assimilation among cohorts within these six Asian countries, which challenges the prevailing "model minority" myth.

One possible explanation for the wage disparity between immigrants and native populations lies in the differing skill compositions of these groups. These skill-based distinctions are observable through factors such as education, while unobservable skill-based differences may be attributed to labor market discrimination, language barriers, and other factors. Another facet of unobservable skill differences, often referred to as omitted variable bias, may stem from the fact that educational qualifications earned in foreign countries may not seamlessly translate into the U.S. context. This could be due to cultural disparities in the workplace or additional licensing requirements in the U.S., potentially hindering immigrants from securing jobs that match their qualifications compared to their U.S. native counterparts.


This paper utilizes data drawn from the 1970–2000 decennial U.S. censuses and pooled 2009-2011 and 2019-2021 ACS data to document and investigate the long-run trends in Asian immigrant earnings spanning several decades, disaggregated by country of origin. One of the central findings of this paper is that, on average, more recent cohorts of Asian American immigrants tend to experience either higher or similar levels of entry wages compared to natives. Furthermore, the long-term trends in the data question the validity of the "model minority" myth, which assumes that all Asian American descendants uniformly outperform U.S. natives, as we observe very distinct paths in the economic assimilation of various Asian groups.

However, this study has a notable limitation, namely, we assumed that immigrants from earlier censuses continue to be present in successive censuses in order to track cohorts over time. In reality, individuals may retire, pass away, or simply return to their home countries, which is more likely for those who may have faced unfavorable job prospects in the U.S. This could lead to an underestimation of the true economic progress within a cohort. Therefore, it is imperative to replicate these findings using longitudinal samples rather than relying solely on the repeated cross-sectional data available in census records. While tracking individual immigrants across several decades may be logistically challenging, it would enhance the validity of our results.

Furthermore, it is essential to account for inflation when assessing earnings growth to obtain a comprehensive understanding of assimilation within a cohort. Macroeconomic conditions can also introduce biases into estimates of aging and cohort effects. Events like the Cold War, the Dot Com Bubble, or the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, may disproportionately impact specific groups of immigrants. It is probable that the variation in how these groups are impacted before and after a certain event is similar, and our cross-sectional methodology effectively captures this effect. However, in future research, we can evaluate whether all groups are equally affected by measuring their correlation with macro events. 
Finally, our study samples are restricted to Asian immigrants from the six major countries of origin, which means that smaller Asian countries are not included in our analysis. A more comprehensive analysis is required to precisely gauge the impact of these factors on the wage assimilation patterns over time for all Asian immigrant groups.


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