In the SF Chronicle’s blogs, Dr. Winston Chung writes that Korea’s exceptionally high autism numbers may in fact be a case of culture padding the stats:

Some researchers suggest autism is underdiagnosed, citing a study from South Korea that estimated 1 in 38 South Korean children had some form of autism – compared with 1 in 88 in the U.S. from the most recent CDC report. How do cultural differences come into play when applying the DSM-IV, which was developed in the culture of the United States, to the people of South Korea?

My family lives in South Korea, but that fact alone doesn’t influence my opinion that some Korean parents tend to shelter their children. This tendency is concretely reflected in a Korean custom of not taking a newborn out of the home for at least 100 days, with the 100th day marking a cause for celebration known as baek-il. Does less social exposure lead to decreased social aptitude that could be seen as pathology through the eyes of the DSM-IV?

The aforementioned study of South Korean children found that many of the children identified with an autism spectrum disorder in the study had higher I.Q.s with poor socialization skills. Pressure for academic achievement is so intense in South Korea, it’s not uncommon for kindergarten age students to stay up until midnight studying at private, after-hours tutoring academies, known as hagwons. It’s gotten to the point where the South Korean government has set up agencies to crack down – with limited success – on children studying at hagwons after 10:00pm. How might an early and gargantuan emphasis placed on academic development affect social skills in children in South Korea?

Not sure how much the baegil has to do with anything, but sure, I can see how academic pressure might lead to poor social skills, which might in turn look like autism on a scale designed for Americans.