How maracas, marches help autistic people

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am

Zhang Caihong sat cross-legged on the panelled floor, clapping to the rhythm of one of Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches.

On the stage, her son, Zhou Jiawei, shook the maracas hesitantly, eyes fixed on the floor, despite being guided by the encouragement of a handful of violinists and percussionists.

For Zhang it was a moment when she could temporarily leave behind the autism that has disrupted her son's cognitive development and her Shanghai family's life.

'He's 20 but still behaves like a toddler. He can't speak in a normal way, he can't make eye contact with others, he can't use a straw, he can't sniffle and he can't spit,' Zhang said. 'But now he is performing in front of an audience. It's amazing. It adds the brightest colour to our lives.'

Official estimates put the number of people suffering from autism on the mainland at well above 1 million. But the condition is so little understood by the public that autistic children are often treated as though they are otherwise mentally challenged.

Autism is a developmental disability characterised by speech impairment and seizures, and those affected find it difficult to express themselves or respond to others. There is no known cure.

Even in a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, awareness is low and the mainland has yet to introduce any standards related to the diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and education of those with autism.

Zhang and other parents of autistic children have even repeatedly failed to have their loose self-help association registered as a non-governmental organisation with the Shanghai office of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, which effectively acts as the country's highest authority in handling the welfare of the handicapped.

'They simply don't recognise autism as a disability,' said Zhang, the head of the association.

Given the widespread ignorance, it's no wonder that Cao Xiaoxia , the founder of a voluntary therapeutic music salon, who convened a group of amateur musicians to entertain and enlighten Zhou and dozens of other autistic children once a week in Shanghai, got to know of their predicament via foreign media.

'First I came across a magazine story in 2007. Then I watched Marathon on TV,' said Cao, whose day job is concert agent.

Marathon, a 2005 film by Korean director Jeong Yun-Cheol, was the story of an autistic marathon runner. It was held up as Asia's answer to Rain Man, the Oscar-winning 1988 comedy-drama that starred Dustin Hoffman as an autistic man with a photographic memory. Inspired by what she read and watched, Cao decided to help autistic people in her own way.

In 2008, she mobilised the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the mainland's only amateur orchestra, founded by her father Cao Peng, a retired conductor, to put together a weekly therapeutic music session for the children. In other countries, making music has become an integral part of many programmes for children with autism.

Music is believed to give a better sense structure and a better setting for communication for autistic children than language.

'He loves string quartet works most, particularly Mozart's works,' Zhang said of her son. 'Autistic kids live in their own world thanks to the dysfunction in expressing themselves and understanding others. But music seems to be effective in easing the inner strain.'

It apparently helps calm parents as well.

After almost two years working with the parents of autistic children, Cao said many had developed their own mental problems due to isolation and discrimination.

The apparent eccentricity of their children was often met with dirty looks and rude complaints. Hospitals are not equipped to care for children who dread any kind of bodily contact and the government provides no special schools for autistic children. As a result, many parents choose to teach their children at home - often at the expense of their own jobs.

'They endured even more pain,' Cao said.

'The music salon is a rare place where they can share amusing and light-hearted moments with kids.'

And it's a place where the children, many for the first time, can regularly interact with ordinary people. 'In the long term, isolation from a normal social context could compound their conditions,' said Celine Shen, a percussionist with the orchestra who developed a drum class for the autistic children. 'Learning music is a partial solution ... We are not building the capacity of a musician. We just hope to make their lives easier.'

Zhang's son, one of Shen's students, participated in Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony as a percussionist. 'He can't speak it out but, as a mother, I know he enjoys it and that's the best relief for me,' Zhang said.