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My Journey as a Late Autistic Diagnosed Vietnamese American Guy

Dennis Tran headshot wearing a suit and red button down shirt

Dennis Tran

Los Angeles, CA, April 8 – Growing up Vietnamese American to a family with disabilities and unhealed intergenerational trauma was something very eye opening for me. In my experience, mental health and disability are rarely discussed in our Vietnamese American cultural upbringing, and they are often seen as shameful. In fact, they were portrayed as a curse or bad luck. On my dad’s side of the family, showing any sort of emotions or opening up about our struggles would be seen as either a weakness or a threat. I have observed many comparisons and slights that my dad experienced for being disabled and different from his own relatives and siblings.

This was something very common among kids with immigrant parents, especially in Asian families. The stigma surrounding mental health and disability has been around for decades. The society we grew up in didn’t really prioritize or support mental health and disability. There was a lot of injustice, inaccessibility, and inequity to resources and opportunities. News and entertainment media at the time didn’t help to destigmatized this. Instead, it contributed to toxic masculinity and the idealization of physically strong looking male figures while continuing the narrative that anyone who looks or seen as different should be shamed upon or ostracized.

I always was compared to my dad for everything I did, and this led to feelings of shame and guilt for being different and out of the norm. As a kid, I did not know any better. I did not have a male role model growing up, and I witnessed my family members fighting all the time. The comparison to my dad made me feel so ashamed that I wanted to reject the toxic masculinity present throughout my upbringing.

I believe that a lack of access and resources is what led to my late diagnoses. At the age of 17, I was diagnosed with glaucoma causing partial blindness; and then I was diagnosed with autism 10 years later. Coincidentally, these disabilities are the same ones my dad had during my childhood. We only knew about glaucoma, but realized he had undiagnosed autism when I became aware of my own diagnosis.

My first diagnosis with glaucoma really took a toll on me. I adopted the survival mentality from my own family’s upbringing. I recalled my dad telling me to not be like him due to his own disabilities and that life would be miserable. What my dad had experienced was the fear-based and survival mentality that many immigrant parents operate under. When I received my diagnosis of glaucoma, I immediately went into this same mentality and believed that my life was over. I already was feeling different from others and didn’t feel like I was connecting, which led to my struggle with mental health. I did not know what to do or how to even cope with what I was going through. Because of my upbringing, I was never really taught to share my struggles and stories with others. This mentality led me to believe that sharing my stories and being vulnerable was weak and unsafe. It was to the point where I was fending all by myself as I suppressed my feelings and emotions. I did not know who I was, I felt so different, out of place, and didn’t feel like I connected with others. My closest friends didn’t feel close enough. In those years, I was living life on society’s terms and doing things I believed other people my age were supposed to be doing. It felt like I was carrying a lot of baggage internally without knowing how to address it, because I did not know how to be vulnerable. I was afraid of going against what I had been taught growing up, by my family and society. Despite all of this, the very thing I always wanted was to be able to connect with others, be fully seen, understood, and accepted for who I was.

When I was diagnosed with autism in 2020, I considered it to be a “light bulb” moment. At first, I couldn’t believe it, but I quickly embraced it knowing how much I had gone through these past 20 years feeling out of place and disconnected with others. I didn’t know who I was at all or why I behaved or acted a certain way. I may have appeared to be odd to other people, but those behaviors or actions have always seemed normal to me. However, deep down, I always knew that autism wasn’t the only factor for why I felt this way. I decided to explore my curiosity as a way of understanding myself more, and as I started to reflect upon my life, I began to understand the unhealed family mental health traumas I never really addressed. It was through these moments of introspection into my past that made me decide I wanted more for myself, and I wanted to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. My life up to that point felt very unfulfilling as I kept searching for opportunities to connect, chasing after jobs, and forcing things to happen, only for my life to fall apart right in front of me.

The cumulation of years’ worth of unhealed family traumas from my Vietnamese American upbringing needed to be addressed. All those years of not being able to be vulnerable and living life on a survival mentality by playing it safe wasn’t working anymore. I decided I wanted to no longer let others such as my family or society dictate how I should be living my life. I wanted to take life into my own hands and be the protagonist of it. With my new knowledge of autism, I wanted to maximize my potential in life, while living in coexistence with my disabilities. I knew then, there got to be a way other than to just survive.

I remember seeing disability represented for the first time in the media by Vietnamese American MasterChef 2012 Winner, Christine Ha, who was able to live her dream and overcome the odds while living with her disabilities. It made me think, I too can do the same and thrive in life. I decided to follow that curiosity wherever it leads me. I did not want to live off of a survival mentality anymore. I wanted a life that is true and authentic to me and my values. Within a day of my autism diagnosis, I decided I wanted to be happy. Instead of viewing my disabilities as a weakness, I wanted to leverage it into my strengths. It was at this moment, I mustered up the courage to reach out to a life coach, which had made such a profound impact in my life.

Everything I was searching for up to this point in my life, I found in life coaching. Upon entering the post-grad world, I became more lost and confused about not having a structure to follow anymore. I began to question what I really wanted to do with my life. I had many unanswered questions on how to navigate different aspects of my life in the broken system that I grew up in. I was so frustrated with many things including the inaccessibility for an autistic and low vision/partially blind person like myself, the injustices in the world, and the overall lack of resources and support.

In addition to all of this, no one around me seemed to be talking about very issues that I saw and experienced first-hand. As a result, I was left fending and advocating for myself. Despite having all these questions and frustrations with life, there was also my struggle with being vulnerable and opening up about myself that was influenced by my Vietnamese American upbringing. I was afraid of being shamed for my disabilities and that no one would like me. The insecurities I had led me to hide myself from others in order to protect me from getting hurt. My family discouraged me from sharing my struggles, and this only reinforced those insecurities that I was feeling. What I thought I had wanted on this journey after college was a mentor, but it turned out life coaching was what I needed beyond just a job or career advising. I wanted to be able to cultivate relationships with others, have deep conversations, and connections.

Life coaching changed my life completely for the better, as I came to terms with who I was then. This healing journey has taught me to accept and love myself as I am. There were a few things I was looking for, when it came to selecting a life coach or professional help for me. I was looking for someone who could understand the source of what broke me, who shared similar experiences and cultural background as me, and who could teach me how to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life. My experiences with therapy weren’t great at first. The psychotherapist who diagnosed me with autism was quick to prescribe medications and quick to make assumptions without trying to understand who I was. I decided that wasn’t something for me. I was only familiar with therapists at the time and had no idea of what life coaching was and what it could potentially do. It ended up being the right choice for me.

Throughout this entire process of my healing journey, acceptance of myself, and my disabilities, I came to understand the importance of following my curiosity and intuition. I always had a knack for creativity and storytelling, but I did not know how to tap into it. My life coach, who also identified as Asian American and happened to be neurodiverse, worked in the content creation and entertainment industry as a producer for new media. We also shared a similar upbringing, so it naturally felt right from the start. This led me down the path to explore my passion for storytelling, which resulted in launching a podcast to share my stories as an Asian American with disabilities, becoming a disability advocate, and being involved with RespectAbility’s Entertainment and News Media Team as an Apprentice.

It has been a little more than one and a half years of a healing journey so far, my relationships with myself and those around me such as family and friends have significantly improved and changed for the better. I have come to terms with my autism and can now coexist with my disabilities. I am in a much better state of mind and free from the internal conflicts. My mental health has improved a lot since then. I am pretty content with my life and where I am heading now. I am grateful for all the experiences that have shaped me into the person I am today. Using my profound knowledge, wisdom, and mindset shift that I have gained throughout this process, I plan to continue to advocate for others in the disability space and those in the marginalized community across various sectors, to ensure authentic representations, inclusiveness, and accessibility for all.

Meet the Author

Dennis Tran

Dennis Tran is a partially blind autistic quality professional and socialpreneur, living with glaucoma and family mental health traumas. He is a strong advocate and supporter for fair representation of Asian Americans in media, film, the arts, and the creative fields.

2 comments… add one
  • Sara Apr 16, 2022, 12:47 pm

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this, Dennis. It resonates with me so much!

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