"The majority were upset but understood," said Dr. [Young Shin] Kim, who led the study. But "some did not accept it and thought we were nuts."
Only three families were willing to talk with a reporter. Kim said several mothers had agreed to participate but their husbands would not let them, refusing to accept that anything was wrong with their children.
One mother said her son was a little weak on social skills but otherwise normal. "I believe that in Korean society, boys are often misunderstood," she said. "So it's harder for them to socialize." The researchers said the boy's diagnosis was Asperger's.
In several cases, children identified as autistic had already been found to have "reactive attachment disorder," a condition that resembles autism in that children struggle with social interactions. But unlike autism, which has a strong genetic basis, it is by definition caused by disregard for the child's emotional needs.
The diagnosis resembles "refrigerator mother" theories embraced in the U.S. decades ago: the idea that bad mothering made children detached and unable or unwilling to communicate. It inflicted enormous guilt on mothers. But in Korea, it is more palatable than the possibility that the condition was inherited.
"They don't want to see it as genetic, because it's damaging to the family," [coauthor Richard Roy] Grinker said. Instead, "the mother can take the bullet and say, 'I failed with this child.'