Document Type

Honors Project

Publication Date

Spring 2012


Does mental health and illness differ across cultures? What factors influence the way mental illness is experienced and understood? These questions regarding disability and cultural context address the central topic of my research: how understandings of normality and abnormality are culturally mediated. What individuals in one culture may be quick to call weird, unusual, or different, individuals in another culture may be less inclined to even notice or comment on. Based on five months of participant observation, interviews, and data gathering at an autism school in Cape Town, South Africa, this study explores the unique experiences and understandings of caregivers of children with autism and staff members at the school. Through an analysis of socialization and culture, explanatory models of autism, and caregiver help-seeking behaviors, it becomes clear that mental illness is heavily mediated by culture, particularly with regards to individual, communal, social, and structural factors. Specifically, South African caregivers of children with autism are influenced by their personal capacity to cope with a special needs child, their experience with family and community members, and the availability of services and resources, among other things.

Level of Honors

magna cum laude




Brenda Jenike