‘Why Did You Leave Japan,” usually features people who chose to make their lives abroad after growing up in Japan. This time, however, the column focuses on someone whose family made the decision to leave when he was just 5 — because they could see no other option.
Meet Satoshi Eric Asato, a young man on the autistic spectrum who is known as “Sachi” to his family and friends. Mother Sheila and father Satoru speak on Sachi’s behalf about his journey to date.
These days, Sachi lives an ordinary life in the city of Edina, Minnesota, and follows a set routine. This typically includes making his own packed lunch, catching the bus to his job at WorkAbilities Inc., a sheltered workshop, taking a walk or putting in some time on a treadmill after work, and then unwinding with a favorite activity, such as looking up things on Wikipedia or playing video games.
“This may seem like a rather dull and uneventful life, but I beg to differ. As his mom, I am very aware of how hard he has worked to get this far,” Sheila says with palpable pride.
Sachi started life with the odds stacked firmly against him. He was abandoned at birth in a hospital in Saitama Prefecture, and with Japanese and British parentage, the infant was considered a difficult case.
Sheila and Satoru already had a son, Hiroshi, who is five years Sachi’s senior, but following a complicated delivery, it was deemed too dangerous for Sheila to give birth again. As soon as the couple met Sachi, a week before his first birthday, they knew he belonged in their family. However, it was obvious that he was displaying signs of development delays, probably resulting from not having had the chance to form an attachment to a stable caregiver in infancy.
“For example, he rarely cried and found it very difficult to bear touch of any sort,” Sheila recalls. “Later, when Sachi did learn how to cry and vocalize, he didn’t stop for many years.”
While thrilled to bring their new son home, this marked the start of a stressful time for the Asatos, and for Sheila in particular. Autism was not yet well understood in Japan and the response from medical professionals and welfare agencies was invariably, “there is nothing wrong with your son.”
It was even suggested that Sachi’s issues lay with Sheila’s parenting skills — or lack thereof. While it seems unthinkable today to blame a child’s autism on the mother, this line of reasoning was commonplace in the United States from the 1940s through to the early ’70s. According to Sheila, when she talks about her parenting experiences from Japan in the 1990s with American mothers of autistic children, it is those a generation above her who most identify with her struggle.
The case for Sachi’s formal adoption by the Asatos was slow and inched its way through the legal system. Due in part to the fact that Japanese, British and American laws were involved, the presiding judge called it one of the most complicated cases he had ever seen. The process was finally completed in 1999.
At this point, Sachi’s parents made the decision to move to the U.S., Sheila’s homeland, to get the support that he so desperately needed.
“It was the right thing to do. Sachi needed help that wasn’t available in Japan at the time,” Satoru says. “I had no doubt that I was employable and would be able to take care of our family, so I just did what needed to be done.”
“Sachi had just turned 5 years old and was due to start kindergarten,” adds Sheila. “Shortly after we moved, a team of developmental specialists and doctors in the neuropsychology department at the University of Minnesota did an in-depth evaluation of him. They gave us a diagnosis of autism with a severe sensory integration disorder and attachment disorder.”
While the move was highly beneficial for Sachi, it brought some challenges for their older son. Entering sixth grade in middle school, Hiroshi had to cope with an unfamiliar education system and lessons conducted entirely in English. Nevertheless, he has always been one of his brother’s biggest cheerleaders.
Thanks to dedicated teachers and intensive therapy tailor-made for his needs, Sachi’s language skills began to progress, helping him to broaden his horizons. In 2014, he discovered the animated TV show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” which focuses on social skills, and he became a “Brony.”
“Bronies are a community of young men interested in ‘My Little Pony.’ They are extremely tolerant and welcoming to people with autism, who also enjoy the colorful characters and storylines about the challenges of fitting in,” explains Sheila. “He attended his first BronyCon convention in 2015 and found his tribe.”
Technology has also played an important part in helping Sachi gain confidence. During a family trip back to Japan in 2012, after high school graduation, he grew comfortable walking to places alone. After returning back to the U.S., his parents found a tracking app for his phone so they could ensure he was safe while facilitating his burgeoning independence.
“Sometimes he becomes a little confused about the roads, but he has learned how to make a video call to us to show us where he is with the camera,” Sheila says.
Last year, Hiroshi, his wife and their young son moved into the house next door. Sachi is delighted to be able to spend time with his nephew, while Satoru and Sheila feel secure in the knowledge that his brother and sister-in-law will eventually take over as Sachi’s guardians in the future.
Life is good for Sachi, who takes a lot of pride in his job at the sheltered workshop and enjoys participating in the regular field trips that are part of the program. “The best thing is putting cards into the plastic sleeves. And I like bowling and going to the library with my friends,” he says enthusiastically.
Reflecting on Sachi’s journey, Satoru advises other parents of special needs children not to shy away from getting a diagnosis and a label.
“Everyone is afraid of what they don’t know. But when you have an accurate diagnosis, it helps raise awareness. Both the family and the community benefit and greater compassion and awareness grow,” he says.
“Don’t be afraid to embrace disabilities. We can all grow when we do.”