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Parents struggle for autistic kids

CHINA has no public schools specifically for autistic children so they are taught or treated in schools with others who are mentally challenged. By 2012 the government aims to build facilities in 31 pilot cities. Tian Ying reports.

In an outdoor gym class in Beijing, parents are holding their young ones' arms and helping them follow the teacher's moves. None of the autistic kids are focusing on the teacher as they move awkwardly - gently pulled this way and that by their parents.

In this nursery mainly for autistic children, parents accompany their kids all day long. Autism is a neural disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and repetitive behavior.

The nursery belongs to the public-funded Beijing Chaoyang Anhua Intelligence Training School, where about one third of the 165 students suffer from autism.

Since there are no public schools specifically for autistic children, these kids are taught together with others who are mentally challenged.

According to WHO statistics, there are 600,000 to 1.8 million children with autism in China. But some scholars believe that the number might be several millions higher.

When the kids are taking a nap at noon, 40-year-old Liu Jianhua is mopping his son's classroom floor and tidying up the toys. He volunteers and takes turns with his wife to look after their son.

"Now I'm pleased to see that my boy wants to hug his daddy occasionally, but before attending the school he treated me just like another person," he says. His five-year-old boy, Liu Shuai, doesn't talk and needs to be looked after constantly.

Generally, unlike normal kids, autistic children seem emotionally detached from their parents, never showing intimacy.

However, this doesn't make Liu Jianhua love his son any less. "What really worries me is my boy's future, especially when his mother and I are not with him anymore. Who will look after him?" asks Liu.

Another parent Zhong Xueping says outside the classroom, "I dare not even think about it." In the classroom, his four-year-old boy Zhong Chuangli is waving his right hand, unaware of what the teacher is doing.

Zhong Xueping says he has no idea if the training will help his boy, all he can do is to give his son the best he can afford - a huge financial burden for him.

Anhua's tuition is 1,500 yuan (US$220) a month, roughly half the average salary in Beijing in 2009. Tuition at private schools can be double or triple that.

Even the cost of the public schools can nearly bankrupt a family, as only one parent usually has time to work, while the other must look after their child all the time. To add to their struggle, some families have to leave their hometown and rent flats in big cities to ensure their children get proper care.

Zhong Xueping's family is from Hubei Province. He and his wife sell clothes in Beijing for a living. "We barely make ends meet after the tuition is paid, and we can only afford to rent a small basement," he says.

As to the kids' future, Long Jianyou, the principal of Anhua School, says: "In the best-case scenario, graduates from Anhua's vocational high school can find employment."

Anhua caters for children from pre-school through high school.

This year, 12 of the graduates have already found jobs in reputable hotels, doing simple jobs such as changing bed sheets. They could earn as much as 1,700 yuan a month, says Long.

"The employers offering jobs to our kids are all China-based foreign companies," says Long.

"There is not a single domestic company doing this. They might employ physically disabled persons, but never those who are mentally challenged," he says, citing widespread misunderstanding of autism.

Zhong Xueping says his family is discriminated against because people think their child is some kind of lunatic.

"We sell clothes in a market, and when my boy crawls into others' stands, they shun him as if he's an idiot."

Talking about their child's future, Wang Hongli, mother of a 10-year-old boy who's just started to exhibit symptoms of autism, believes her son could do a lot better. She hopes one day her boy can socialize like normal kids.

She's going to send her son back to regular school this autumn. But he will probably need a tutor, which could cost 2,000 yuan a month at least.

Wang comes from a small city in northeast China's Liaoning Province. Because there is no special school in her hometown, she took time off from work and took her boy all the way to Beijing for treatment and schooling.

Even in Beijing, there were no special schools for young children suffering for autism six years ago. Long, the Anhua principal, says: "We only realized recently that the earlier autism is diagnosed and treated, the better people fare later in life, so we started this autistic nursery."

China has incorporated a plan for training autistic children into the country's development blueprint for 2006-2012, which specifies the building of autism training facilities in 31 pilot cities, and training professionals to diagnose, train and teach autistic children.


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