Special needs pupils face growing concerns

08:24, December 27, 2010      

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Yao Yiyi and his mother cut a figure from paper during an arts class in Anhua Intelligence Training School, Chaoyang district, Beijing. Zhang Tao / China Daily

Yao Yiyi was 4 years old when doctors diagnosed him as autistic. Although heartbroken, his family hoped the news would at least start the healing process.

After five years at a Beijing special school, his parents are still waiting to witness any real progress.

"I don't know what to do," said his mother, a soldier with the People's Liberation Army who asked to be identified only as Liu. "My son seems to be no different at all."

Yao, now 9, spends most days in his "own little world", playing with his favorite teddy bear and sucking on his fingers. He rarely speaks or even interacts with others.

Liu and her husband said they are beginning to fear their son will never be able to live independently.

For parents of autistic children in China, such anxiety is typical, say mental health experts, especially as the country is yet to adopt an inclusive education model that provides suitable training and employment opportunities for youngsters with the disorder.

According to the China Disabled Persons' Federation, more than 90 percent of people with autism face difficulties in going to public schools or getting jobs.

China's first case of autism, a disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, as well as restricted and repetitive behavior, was reported in 1983.

Since then, the autistic population has swelled to about 4 million nationwide. Although there is no official data on the number of child sufferers, a 2004 study by the Beijing Rehabilitation Association for Autistic Children suggested it could be in the region of 450,000.

Yao's parents spend 2,000 yuan ($300) a month for his tuition at Anhua Intelligence Training School, the only State-funded vocational center for children with learning difficulties in the capital's Chaoyang district. They also pay 1,300 yuan a month to rent an apartment near the school.

Money is tight, especially as Liu is on long-term leave from her army unit in Baicheng, Heilongjiang province, and her husband is studying for a PhD at Tsinghua University.

"Financial difficulties can be conquered. We're more worried about what is going to happen to our son after our deaths," explained Liu, 34. "Sometimes we hope he will never grow up or that he will die before us."

Autism is detectable very early in a child's development, yet Liu said doctors in Baicheng took more than three years to confirm Yao's diagnosis, causing serious delays to his treatment.

"Children should start receiving (special) training before the age of 3," said Tian Huiping, director of Beijing Stars and Rain, the country's first autism institute set up in 1993. Referring to Yao's case, she added: "If doctors had confirmed he was autistic just one year earlier, he would be speaking a lot more now."

In rural areas, even mental health professionals do not recognize the symptoms of autism, let alone the general public.

Jia Meixiang, a psychologist and vice-president of the Beijing Rehabilitation Association for Autistic Children, has specialized in autism since the late 1980s and diagnoses roughly 2,000 patients at her clinic in Haidian district every year.

She is lobbying central authorities to shift toward "a national mental healthcare system that provides quality, personalized training" for children and adults with the disorder. Jia is also among the experts calling for the government to establish a new department that keeps a closer eye on special schools. Officials need to "judge who is qualified to run these training schools", she said adding: "Supervision should be strengthened to regulate the industry."

Figures from the China Disabled Persons' Federation show there are about 500 licensed special schools for children with learning difficulties nationwide, most of which are private.

By Hu Yongqi, China Daily
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