The Western Disease

The Western Disease

Contesting Autism in the Somali Diaspora

Claire Laurier Decoteau


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Because autism is an increasingly common diagnosis, North Americans are familiar with its symptoms and treatments. But what we know and think about autism is shaped by our social relationship to health, disease, and the medical system. In The Western Disease Claire Laurier Decoteau explores the ways that recent immigrants from Somalia to Canada and the US make sense of their children’s diagnosis of autism. Having never heard of autism before migrating to North America, they often determine that it must be a Western disease. Given its apparent absence in Somalia, they view it as Western in nature, caused by environmental and health conditions unique to life in North America. 

Following Somali parents as they struggle to make sense of their children's illness and advocate for alternative care, Decoteau unfolds how complex interacting factors of immigration, race, and class affect Somalis’ relationship to the disease. Somalis’ engagement with autism challenges the prevailing presumption among Western doctors that their approach to healing is universal.   Decoteau argues that centering an analysis on autism within the Somali diaspora exposes how autism has been defined and institutionalized as a white, middle-class disorder, leading to health disparities based on race, class, age, and ability. The Western Disease asks us to consider the social causes of disease and the role environmental changes and structural inequalities play in health vulnerability.


Claire Laurier Decoteau:

Claire Laurier Decoteau is associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Ancestors and Antiretrovirals: The Biopolitics of HIV/AIDS in Post-Apartheid South Africa, also published by the University of Chicago Press.