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Children in China

China’s autistic children and a pioneering woman’s model for rehabilitation

From four children in rented classrooms to 7,500 across its dedicated centres, Wucailu has led the case for countrywide strategies and greater resources

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 11:16pm

Sun Menglin never expected to find so many obstacles in her path when she set out to help autistic children.

But after 14 years of persistence, during which she has grown the Beijing-based Wucailu from nothing into the country’s largest autism research and intervention centre, the 57-year-old has overcome plenty of them.

Now with more than 190 staff, the aim for Wucailu is to expand nationwide its rehabilitation work with children in Beijing and in its recently established centres in Shanghai and Xuzhou, in the eastern China province of Jiangsu.

“We hope to create an open platform for domestic and foreign scientists to study autism and build national standards for therapists,” Sun said.

Sun could have been enjoying a comfortable life abroad, having been educated partly overseas and previouslylived with family in Canada. But when, after seven years as a housewife, she was asked by her own son whether she had any dreams to pursue, she made up her mind to add purpose to her life by devoting herself to public welfare.

After volunteering at orphanages, nurseries and hospices, she decided to focus on autism research, as she observed one sad story after another revealing that families were torn apart because of the disorder, without adequate support from China’sinstitutions.

“I can still remember the scene: an old lady, like a movie star, tried every means – dancing, singing and rich facial expressions – to communicate with her grandson, but the boy sat unmoved regardless,” she recalled of her first contact with autistic children in early 2004.

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China’s autism rate is estimated at about 1 per cent – equating to at least 10 million, of whom a fifth are children – according to an industry report released last year.

“My first thought was that I need to do something for them,” Sun told the South China Morning Post at her spacious headquarters in Beijing. “The earlier they are diagnosed and we intervene, the better.”

The country’s first autistic person was identified only in 1982, decades behind the developed world. While many children’s autism barely came to the attention of their parents and kindergarten teachers, other parents became obsessed with costly drugs or even stem cell therapy in the hope of somehow “curing” it.

When Wucailu was launched in July 2004, it had four children and was based in two shabby rented classrooms in central Beijing. The biggest challenges were a lack of experienced therapists and the fact that no Chinese publications on autism intervention were sold in bookshops or available in libraries at that time.

“Love can’t solve all the problems – we need scientific approaches,” Sun said.

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She decided to introduce the most advanced methods from abroad, despite their high cost. Through cooperation with dozens of foreign experts, the centre is trying to explore the most suitable intervention standards for Chinese children and the guidelines for parents.

“We aim to alleviate their disorder and change their pathological mechanism, which is vital for their grown-up life,” she said.

Wucailu charges about 100 yuan (US$16) per class hour – far lower than the equivalent in the United States, and lower than ordinary English tutoring courses in Beijing.

Some children from poorer families are exempt from paying fees, while many are eligible for a 50 per cent discount thanks to local government subsidies.

More than 870 children received early intervention in 2017, and the number could jump to 1,000 this year, Sun said.

More than 7,500 children in total have been admitted to date, a vast majority of whom were aged between two and six, with the youngest starting at eight months old.

The database of cases handled by Wucailu is a valuable asset for studying the disorder and determining the best intervention methods.

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According to Sun, about a fifth of high functioning autistic children are able to live a normal life after appropriate treatment, Sun said.

Notable cases spring readily to mind. A boy who took part in the centre’s intervention programme at the age of 2½ is now a pupil at a regular middle school in Tianjin, in northeast China.

“His academic study is fairly good,” Sun said about the boy, who is now a teenager. “He has friends, likes playing basketball, and is interested in world history and geology.”

As an influential name in the country’s autistic research circles, Sun grasps every chance that comes her way to meet policymakers, including the symposium of the State Council, to lobby for more supportive policies.

In recent years, she has been pushing hard for the establishment of an early screening system and the popularisation of basic autism knowledge in ordinary schools.

Chinese authorities began to include autistic children in its allocation of resources from 2006. For instance, Wucailu’s three campuses in Beijing – two located downtown and one measuring 2 hectares (5 acres) in the suburban district of Shunyi – are provided free or at a low rent by local governments.

Further encouraging signs are emerging, such as the State Council’s recent announcement that it would provide more financial support to autistic children aged under six.

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More difficult to achieve, however, is managing the resources and knowledge: treatment standards and education approaches, a large team of treatment staff, and the coordination of hospitals, parents, schools and government agencies.

“China has the world’s largest autistic population, but no university can provide enough therapists for us,” Sun said.

She welcomes investment of private capital in the development of autism treatment. “It’s a good thing,” she said.

“Such a highly professional and technologically demanding sector cannot go far with only enthusiasts and warm-hearted people.”