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December 6, 2019

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Autistic kids make a splash

Just like any 7-year-old boy, Ji Yao sat quietly beside the pool, enjoying snacks after a two-hour coaching session.

“I love swimming. I’m happy,” he said, not looking at the reporter after his grandfather asked him to answer. Pressed further, he becomes impatient, and suddenly walks away. Yes, he’s disobedient, reclusive, and a bit eccentric. He has autism.

Ji was among 20 autistic children taking part in a government-funded autism-friendly swimming class.

Autism remains a poorly understood neurological disorder marked by impaired communication skills and repetitive patterns of behavior. Autistic children can be slow in learning to speak and unable to express their feelings. Their introversion is often mistaken for aggression.

There are around 10 million autistic people in China, about a fifth of them under 14. Every year 200,000 newborns join that group.

A study in the American Journal of Public Health shows that death by drowning is a significant risk for children with autism. They are 160 times more likely to die from drowning compared to the general child population, according to senior author Li Guohua, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York.

Children with autism live in their own world, and may be easily distracted when near water. But due to their lack of communication skills, they may fail to shout for help, said Yu Yongcheng, who is in charge of the class.

“So, swimming ability for them is a necessarily survival skill,” he said. “Also, it trains autistic children to appropriately respond to touch, sound and movement, and teaches them how to communicate with others, which is basic for them to get involved in society in the future.”

The class was initiated by the Jing’an District government and organized by the district’s social group Guoxin Sunshine Service Center. Hailed by parents of autistic children, the program, however, faced problems at the start. “It’s extremely difficult to find a suitable swimming pool. We approached stadiums and professional swimming pools in Jing’an, but they all refused us because they feared safety risks as autistic children are disobedient,” Yu said.

Autistic children will do anything to show their reluctance, Yu said. They will scream, and even may urinate or defecate in the pool.

Greatly improved

Finally, however, the Cypress Hotel in Changning District gave them a chance.

The class started in early May. Twenty children, aged between 6 and 14, were selected by communities and all underwent evaluations to ensure they were qualified to get into the pool. Half of them are from Jing’an, with the rest from other districts including Huangpu, Xuhui and Yangpu.

“They take lessons five days a week, during which they start to like playing with water and learn some basic swimming skills,” Yu said. “Every autistic child has one professional swimming coach. Volunteers, life guards and medical staff are there to ensure safety.”

Two months ago, four children who performed well started to learn freestyle and the breaststroke. Ji was one of them.

“They’ve greatly improved,” said coach Qiao Zenghai.

“I’ve dealt with mentally challenged children and I’ve read books on physiology. I think the most important thing is to treat them like healthy children. Autistic children are just extremely stubborn, and we need to be extremely patient,” he said

Instead of shouting at them, he keeps talking to them and persuading them to do what he teaches.

Ji’s grandfather said the swimming class is better than any other therapies that Ji takes in other rehabilitation institutions.

“Previously he was very afraid of water and he dared not communicate with people. At home, he talked, but he talked in his own languages and we couldn’t understand him,” the grandfather said.

“Now, he loves coach Qiao, and this has not only improved his swimming skills but also his social skills. Also, these autistic children started to talk to each other. Though with very simple words and sentences, it was a huge leap forward. And at home, he can now communicates with us simply.”

Ji is a grade one student at a normal primary school. He is hyperactive and the family had to hire a certified teacher to accompany him to school and have lessons, costing 8,000 yuan (US$1,135) a month. “The community grants us 20,000 yuan a year as subsidy, but it’s still far from enough,” his grandfather said.

Mainstream schools are unable to provide personalized classes and meet the demands of autistic children, which is a headache for many families, many of whom are forced to home school.

“The State Council said in 2015 that schools for autistic children are encouraged, but so far, we don’t have any,” said Cao Xiaoxia, who was recently granted a Magnolia Silver Award in recognition of her contribution to the city.

Cao, who has been dedicated to the education of autistic children for more than a decade, is planning to build a school for them.

As head of the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra, she gives autistic children a platform to show themselves to the world through music. Last year, she even opened a coffee shop where the children are baristas.


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