China’s Autism Schools a Last Resort for Youth on the Spectrum
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2017-05-08 11:34:30

SHANXI, North China — Children on bikes and swing sets filled the playground of a school in Taiyuan City with boisterous cheer — until suddenly, a teenage boy burst into tears and hid inside a slide. Another boy started to wail, putting his dirty hands on his face and taking them off again until he was covered in mud.

The boys’ teacher, Zheng Shuxiang, stayed calm, gently comforting the boys and asking why they were upset. But she didn’t expect an answer.

The 67 students at this private school, officially known as the Lingxing Community Service Center, were born with autism spectrum disorder, a term referring to a range of conditions beginning in childhood that are characterized by impaired social and communication skills, as well as a narrow set of interests. About 1 percent of the world’s population is affected by autism.

“There is no kindergarten that would take my grandson,” said Yi, grandmother to 4-year-old Yuxin, who came to the center last September. Ordinary schools often refuse to admit children with disabilities.

A student covers his face with his hands on the playground at the Lingxing Community Service Center in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 5, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

A student covers his face with his hands on the playground at the Lingxing Community Service Center in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 5, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

Seven years ago, Li Xiaojiao, then 20 years old, started the school in a small apartment in Taiyuan. Li had just graduated from college with a degree in education management and had decided to join her family’s hotel business — until a phone call changed her plans.

The father of Chaochao, a young boy with autism whom Li had gotten to know, called seeking help. “He said Chaochao was in bad condition, and he had nowhere to go for school,” Li recalled.

Chaochao and Li had grown attached to each other while Li was interning at the mental health clinic where the little boy went for treatment. “I was very curious about him,” Li said. “Why did he not look at me, and why did he not respond to my words?”

There is no kindergarten that would take my grandson.

As one of China’s so-called “children of the stars,” Chaochao tends to have trouble adjusting to the norms and expectations of the world. Children like him are often slower to interpret words and concepts than other kids their age. Some might need support their whole lives, while others can live independently as adults.

Li believed that Chaochao would thrive under the care of someone with patience, dedication, and knowledge of his special needs. She decided to help: In 2010, she took in Chaochao and three other children with autism. She named the school “Lingxing,” meaning “Soul Stars,” and began learning psychology through self-study to better understand autism.

In China, autism is classified as a disability. Funding of education services for kids with autism from impoverished families has increased in recent years, and by the end of 2020, the central government aims to financially support 80 percent of children with autism, including those over the age of 7, who did not qualify for financial support before.

But access to education remains an issue, despite new regulations that came into effect on May 1 requiring public schools to develop better services for children with disabilities. There’s no clear pathway or time frame for achieving this goal, and experts have criticized the regulations for stopping short of guaranteeing access to education for children with disabilities.

Although public schools are required to maintain a certain quota of children with disabilities, the number is so low that private institutions remain the only option for the majority, explained Jia Meixiang, deputy director of the Beijing Association for Rehabilitation of Autistic Children.

A photo of teachers at the Lingxing Community Service Center, including Li Xiaojiao (front row, center), sits on a windowsill in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 5, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

A photo of teachers at the Lingxing Community Service Center, including Li Xiaojiao (front row, center), sits on a windowsill in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 5, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

According to Jia, more than 1,000 private institutions across the country specialize in educating children with autism, and 90 percent were founded by people with no previous teaching experience, including some parents of children with autism. The institutions rely on tuition fees to survive and are usually under great financial pressure.

“The government has not provided any long-term aid aside from some lump-sum funding projects,” said Fan Shilu, the father of a child with autism and the founder of the Ark Autism Rehabilitation Institute, a private school similar to Li’s.

Tuition fees for these institutions usually range between 3,500 and 5,000 yuan ($500 to $720) per month, but rent and operational costs are high, as most of the schools have a student-teacher ratio of 2-to-1. Fan’s institute, for example, accumulated a deficit of 300,000 yuan last year.

The shortage of trained teachers is another problem. At Lingxing, each educator is responsible for two to three children. The teachers keep records of the children’s behavior and learning progress, as well as tend to all their daily needs. The students — aged 2 to 17 — are divided into groups based on ability, and they spend their days reading, singing, and playing games, which helps them develop their language abilities, social communication skills, and manual dexterity.

The government has not provided any long-term aid aside from some lump-sum funding projects.

When Lingxing was established, most of the educators were nursery school teachers who were later trained and licensed by the local branch of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF). Specialized teachers are hard to come by, as the Ministry of Education does not include training on autism in the curriculum for special education teachers.

Instead, the CDPF has taken on this task. In 2015 and 2016, the organization trained 6,000 teachers to specialize in the educational needs of children with autism.

But with a recommended teacher-student ratio of close to 1-to-2, compared with China’s average of 1-to-30, the supply of specialized teachers for kids with autism can’t meet the demand. Most of Lingxing’s teachers are graduates of a new special education program offered at universities in Shanxi but have no special expertise in autism.

Like the Ark Autism Rehabilitation Institute, Lingxing has been in debt since its inception. In the beginning, Li couldn’t even afford a blackboard and instead used plywood she had painted black. Since local media first reported on her school in 2013, Li has been receiving donations from individuals, but the 220,000-yuan annual rent for the space is still a significant burden. “It is a bottomless hole,” she said.

Li has also encountered opposition from the surrounding community. When she started the school in an apartment, neighbors complained about the children shouting or jumping on the bed. “The thing I feared most at the time was a knock on the door,” Li said. The school had to relocate twice due to noise complaints from other tenants: One time, their lease was not renewed, and the other time, the property management company simply kicked them out.

The school is now located in a low-rent property with the necessary space for the kids to learn how to ride a bicycle — one of the more challenging skills for them, Li said. When Chaochao finally mastered bike riding after two years of practice, Li said that despite the bruises all over her legs, she felt unbelievably fulfilled.

While some experts argue that children with autism benefit enormously from spending time with non-autistic peers, Li feels that specialized schools like hers can offer the best care. At Lingxing, she said, the children can thrive.

A student looks at the blackboard in a classroom at the Lingxing Community Service Center in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 5, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

A student looks at the blackboard in a classroom at the Lingxing Community Service Center in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 5, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone

“My grandson never responded to words and never spoke to people before he came here,” said Yi, Yuxin’s grandmother. “Now he can pronounce ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ and can understand the meaning of ‘walk’ and ‘stand.’”

Li hopes that the provincial government will introduce new policies to better address the children’s educational needs, but until that happens, parents of kids at the school will continue to worry about their children’s futures. Li said that those who know about Lingxing’s financial difficulties often ask what they should do if the school is forced to shut down.

For now, all Li can do is try to reassure parents with her optimist attitude. “I always tell them that as long as I am here, the school will be here as well,” she said.

Editor: Denise Hruby.

(Header image: A teacher holds a student’s hand while teaching him to roller skate in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 5, 2017. Wang Yiwei/Sixth Tone)