Cross-Cultural Competence in Autism Studies

By Emily Sullivan, University of Massachusetts Lowell


Image Credit:

I believe the Cross-cultural competence in Community Psychology is among the most important. It emphasizes the ability to work effectively with different groups of people. With a nearly infinite number of cultures, groups and communities that exist today, community psychologists are unable to reach a level of mastery within this competency(Scott & Wolfe, 2015, p.116). While this was a competency developed strictly for community psychology, I believe it would be beneficial to explore its application in different fields of psychology, such as Autism Studies. As a graduate student in the UMass Lowell Autism Studies program I can see real ties between this competence and the work I am doing as an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) practitioner in the Autism Studies field as well as in my education pursuits. There are three key components of the Cross-cultural competence, culture, social identities and privilege and power, which relate directly to Autism Studies(Scott & Wolfe, 2015, p.116).

Culture is made up of behaviors, beliefs and institutions (Scott & Wolfe, 2015, p.117). I believe that for this examination we can think of autism as a culture. It is a disorder characterized by a set of restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviors or interests sometimes accompanied by maladaptive or challenging behaviors. There are also commonly held beliefs, whether positive or negative, about people with autism. These beliefs differ significantly between those with autism and their families and those who remain unaffiliated. Finally there are institutions set in place to either help or hinder individuals with autism. The cross-cultural competence emphasizes that it is extremely important to think of a culture as more than just a label, because labels highlight differences between groups and limit within group diversity(Scott & Wolfe, 2015, p.117). I think this is an important idea to keep in mind in the field of Autism Studies. Labels are stigmatizing and create more distance between groups. I believe ABA practitioners and Autism Studies students alike should develop competence in this to bridge the gap between cultures (those individuals with autism and those without) and help create a more meaningful and lasting impact on individuals with autism.

The social identities component of the cross-cultural competence discusses self and social perceptions and how these are shaped by culture, history or context(Scott & Wolfe, 2015, p.118). I believe an understanding of this component is important in Autism Studies as well as in Community Psychology. It is important when working with or studying individuals with autism to understand self and social perceptions and how they influence their social identities. Disabilities such as autism tend to carry around stigmatizing labels. It is important to understand these social perceptions while keeping in mind how the individual or close family views the individual. This understanding will help ABA practitioners change negative perceptions and hopefully make self perceptions individuals with autism have create a larger impression on their social identity. Perhaps in this realm Community Psychologists could be recruited to help change negative perceptions along with cultural ones that shape the social identities of individuals with autism. I believe a collaboration could create some lasting and meaningful change.

In terms of the privilege and power component of the cross-cultural competence, I think it is easy to relate it to autism. Our country’s history is one that has devalued individuals with disabilities. Therefore, privilege and power has historically and in many cases today is still kept with neurotypical individuals within a community.Understanding this disparity is extremely important within the field of Autism studies, as advocating for these individuals with autism is a large part of what is necessary to be an ABA practitioner. Often times a lack of privilege and power leaves individuals with autism vulnerable for predatory behavior and exploitation. Through understanding this competency practitioners and Autism Studies students could take the necessary steps to ensure that this does not happen.

The cross-cultural competency is important within the field of Community Psychology, but could also be useful in other fields such as Autism Studies. The key components of this competency culture, social identity and privilege and power can clearly tie into Autism Studies and could help practitioners be more effective. Through examination of the cross-cultural competence in Autism Studies, I believe that it would be extremely useful to be used within this field. Based on many similarities between Autism Studies and Community Psychology, collaboration between the fields could have important positive effects on individuals with autism and some of the adversity they face.


Emily Sullivan is a graduate student in the Autism Studies program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.


Scott, C. V, & Wolfe, M. S. (2015) Community Psychology Foundations For Practice. Thousand Oaks,

California: SAGE Publications, Inc.