Ma Chen started a school for children with autism more than a decade ago after her own child, now a teenager, was diagnosed with the neurological disorder. Autism has been misunderstood, misdiagnosed and mistreated around the world for years, so the establishment of the Carnation Children's Rehabilitation Centre in Hangzhou in Zhejiang was a pioneering endeavour. Ma previously worked as an engineer at a state-owned enterprise. She eventually walked away from the security of that position to devote her life to helping autistic children and their parents cope with the disorder, which can manifest itself in extreme behaviour, such as hyperactivity and aggression. She has paid a heavy price. But at the age of 42, despite being compelled to move the school several times and struggling to stay afloat financially, Ma perseveres.
What motivated you to start the school?
It was actually a very simple idea in the beginning. Back in 2002, my daughter was diagnosed with autism. Of course as a mother I wanted her to be cured. I visited hospitals across the country and was told they didn't know how to help her, so I contacted foreign professionals in the field. After consulting with a variety of professionals at home and abroad, there were some who recommended "training and rehabilitation" and others who suggested therapeutic alternatives and educational methods that could help an autistic person lead a healthy life. So I started to look for a school in China that had introduced some of these methodologies, but found there were few, if any, at that time. I went to one in Beijing and another in Qingdao , but the conditions were substandard and they were far away. I thought that if there were accepted methods of helping autistic children, why not set up a school myself? But even at this point, I still lacked basic knowledge about autism. I believed that after a couple of years of "training" by qualified teachers my daughter could be "cured". As a mother, I was willing to spend any amount of money to make my child well. So I opened the school out of a maternal instinct to make my "sick" child well. Making it a career hasn't occurred to me.
If there are so few schools for autistic children, why have you continued to struggle financially?
If you are passionate about something, it can blind you. In 2003, I sold my apartment in Fuyang , a small city near Hangzhou, to fund the school - hiring eight special education teachers right off the bat. A three-storey house in rural Fuyang, which I rented for less than 50,000 yuan per year, would be our schoolhouse. I had the building renovated and invited some foreign experts to provide supplemental training to the teachers, all recent graduates who had majored in special education. The teachers' salaries were slightly more than 1,000 yuan a month. Annual turnover for the entire operation would be in the 500,000 yuan range, which I could handle at the time. I was driven to find the best teachers. Within two years the school had registered a dozen pupils, half of whom were from Hangzhou. A year later, in 2005, my husband and I moved to Hangzhou, following the state-owned company we worked for, which relocated there. Running the school became more problematic. The number of pupils grew quickly, which meant we needed to hire more teachers. And despite Hangzhou's modern exterior, the people's attitudes there towards these "different" children seemed harsher than in the countryside. We moved eight times before settling at our current address in 2012.
Didn't the tuition you charged cover your costs to some extent?
We have 90 pupils now, with 90 per cent of them coming from within Zhejiang. We charge tuition on a monthly basis to keep accounts current. The families seem highly transient, and while 60 of our pupils spend the entire school day with teachers, those who only come for a half-day - some of the pupils attend conventional kindergartens as well - are only charged half the fee. We currently employ roughly 57 teachers and six interns. The average monthly salary for teachers roughly equals the 3,800 yuan (HK$4,800) monthly tuition charged to full-time pupils.
How are the autistic children in your school improving? Can you see tangible improvement?
My daughter has greatly improved. She does not break into crying sessions without a reason like before. She is 14 and can play the piano, swim and play basketball. She has no problem finishing a class. But she always lags behind children the same age. I let her stay at Carnation instead of going to a normal school because I think the education system in China doesn't suit children like her, because it emphasises examinations too much. To make these children take care of themselves and not be a burden to others is already a great goal.
Are there more schools like Carnation in Hangzhou?
We were the first, but now more have opened. There is a government-run school and three private special education schools, including Carnation, in the city.
In the face of similar hardship, some people might have given up. What keeps you going?
Before moving to Hangzhou, I thought of giving up. On the one hand, my daughter had made some progress, but on the other, I finally realised that I could continue working in the field of special education without investing all of my time and money. Now I'm striving for a more balanced life. In the early days, when I first started the school, I would use the annual leave I had earned at the state-owned company to work on starting the school. But I left the job and dedicated my life to my mission.
Ma Chen spoke to Mandy Zuo