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April 12, 2011

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Improving life for autistic children

WHEN 17-year-old Xie Yang has to respond to a question, he avoids eye contact and needs to be prompted two or three times before he answers.

"What's your favorite subject at school?" asks his teacher. Xie pauses. The teacher repeats the question. "Physical education," he replies, moving restlessly and looking uneasy.

Xie is afflicted by autism, a pervasive neurological developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills as well as motor and language abilities.

He is not fluent in speech and slow to react. Yet, he is the best student at Anhua School, the only public rehabilitation school for the mentally challenged in Chaoyang District, Beijing.

"He takes a bus home by himself and knows where to get off, he's interactive, and more importantly, he displays stronger self-control than his autistic classmates," says Fan Xiaojie, the school teacher.

Xie is among tens of thousands of children in Beijing who suffer from autism. Official figures for the number with the disorder in the city are not available.

The number could range from one in 150 to one in 500, Feng Lanyun, a doctor who's been treating autistic children since 2000, cited latest research results from the United States and Hong Kong.

No two sufferers of autism display the same symptoms, but they share a lack of social and self-help skills.

Chinese parents desperately want to improve their autistic children's survival skills through medication and education, fearful the disorder will leave their kids helpless once older family members are gone.

Autism cannot be cured and experts suggest improving autistic children's life skills through early detection and subsequent special training.

Most autistic people are not able to attend a normal school where they inevitably fall behind. They are usually sent to special schools or training centers where they can undergo more individualized training programs and receive more delicate care.

The best time to train autistic children is from two to six years old. Education does help, but parents need to lower their expectations, experts say.

"Some parents send their nine or 10-year-old children to preschool and expect them to develop social skills that would eventually help them find good jobs, but this is absolutely impossible," said Zhao Wali, who's been teaching autistic children in Anhua School since 1992.


About 120 students are enrolled at Anhua School and more than 20 of them are autistic.

In the best years, up to five autistic graduates get jobs as dish-washers or laundry assistants, but only one or two last for any length of time, Zhao and her colleague Fan Xiaojie recall.

Unlike deaf-mutes or people with cerebral palsy whose emotions are generally stable, seldom can autistic sufferers hang on to their jobs as their prolonged temper tantrums and inability to take directions render the majority of them unemployable.

Moreover, few companies are willing to accept them despite the Chinese government giving companies tax breaks, according to the school teachers.

In Beijing, two companies accept autistic graduates from Anhua, Marriott, the US giant hotel operator, and Origus, a Beijing-based pizza restaurant chain.

Although the hope to help autistic people find jobs seems dim and remote, both teachers and doctors believe it is possible and realistic for them to learn some basic life skills.

At Anhua School, autistic children are grouped with their mentally challenged peers in both preschool and nine-year compulsory education.

The text books are all related to daily life. The Chinese language textbook, for example, teaches them "how to dress and what do people usually do in spring."

And a few of them, mostly those with less severe autistic symptoms, are enrolled in advanced programs - vocational training courses that teach them skills to make cakes, cook dishes and do housekeeping chores.

Skills to cook a Chinese dish such as Kung Pao chicken (spicy diced chicken with peanuts), need to be taught over and over again before autistic students aged above 15 know the procedures, Zhao said.

Even with such exquisite care, public schools seem less attractive to some well-off families.

They prefer private institutions, where one-on-one tutoring is offered and education programs are tailored to the needs of individuals.

Preschool education for an autistic child in public schools costs 2,100 yuan (US$320) per month, while private schools charge as much as 4,000 yuan or above.

Public schools and private rehabilitation centers host half of the autistic students in Beijing, but an unknown percentage of parents prefer to take care of autistic children at home either for financial reasons or to save face, according to those who have taught autistic students for more than 20 years.

With at least 16 public schools and a handful of private rehabilitation centers that teach autistic children, Beijing in this regard is better suited for parents with autistic children than its neighboring province Hebei and northeast China, where public rehabilitation centers are few in number and the service is dwarfed by those in the capital.

Both private and public schools in Beijing do not lack students, as anxious parents come from as far as the provinces of Hubei and Henan to have their children educated here. But the schools are having a difficult time.

Private schools, which are mostly run by parents of autistic children or autism experts, have difficulties in raising funds, hiring professionals and leasing school buildings.

Moreover, it is difficult for private schools to obtain approval from civil affairs authorities, said Li Jinshui, an official from Tianjin Disabled Persons' Federation.

Private schools receive limited support from the local federation for the disabled, which makes their tuition fees too expensive to afford, he adds.

For public schools, their biggest headache is the difficulty in recruiting good staff.

No college or public school in China exclusively trains people how to teach autistic children. Two universities in Beijing train teachers for the disabled, including the deaf, mute and autistic people, among others.

Despite a growing number of Chinese realizing the seriousness of the disease, parents are not optimistic.

"My only child still does not know how to spend money. I just can't imagine how she will manage to weather through the hardships after I'm gone," said Ms Wei, mother of a 21-year-old autistic woman.


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