Xinhua Insight: Autism's hard inclusion into Chinese classes

2016-04-02 00:29:38 GMT2016-04-02 08:29:38(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Xinhua Writers Yao Yuan and Yuan Suwen

BEIJING, April 1 (Xinhua) -- After a lively ballot, the "star" of class one was awarded to the chubby, bashful boy Ji Yuanqing.

When the photographer raised the camera, dozens of pupils rushed to pose with the laureate. So many smiling faces pressed against each other that it could be hard to tell that Ji is not like all his classmates.

The 8-year-old boy is the first autistic student to attend Dongtieying No. 2 Primary School in Beijing, and one of the few children living with the disability to study at a mainstream Chinese school.

While Saturday marks World Autism Awareness Day, many Chinese parents are still struggling to find the best learning environment for their autistic children.

Inclusive education, which encourages regular schools to enroll children with disabilities, may be the answer, but a lack of specialist teachers, facilities and awareness among parents means Ji is one of the lucky few.

"A BIGGER WORLD"

Like most Chinese parents, Ji Jingxin and Zhang Lijuan are determined that their only son receives the best education.

After Ji was diagnosed with autism at two, Zhang quit her job to teach the boy at home. Like other autistic children, the boy often struggles with social and oral skills and needs extra time and patience from parents. Zhang said that they will not have a second child as their attentions to Ji "can not be diluted."

Ji senior bares the sole financial responsibility of earning money to send his son to all manner of costly "rehabilitation centers." He said that he became quickly disillusioned with these "centers" as many facilities were driven by profits, and taught very little.

The idea of enrolling Ji into a regular school struck the couple at a singing event about two years ago. To their surprise, Ji began emulating the other children's movement of pressing the headset to the mouth, though not knowing it was meant to amplify the voice.

"At that moment, we realized he knew how to imitate, and that if he was given the opportunity to attend a mainstream school he could learn from healthy children. We were sure that if he attended a special school it would have the adverse affect," Ji senior said.

"He's very close to his mother and has enjoyed his time at home, but we can't be with him forever. We hope he can learn to interact with other children and eventually integrate into society. He deserves a bigger world outside the family."

RARE TREASURE

Ji's case is special. Only a handful of Chinese schools are capable of accepting pupils with autism, as their impaired social skills, poor communication and occasional "eccentric" behavior makes them stand out.

Changes are afoot, however. In Beijing, about 200 schools have opened "resource classrooms" in a response to a February policy by the Ministry of Education on special education facilities.

Dongtieying school received a government grant of 500,000 yuan (77,300 U.S. dollars). They used part of the money to open a resource classroom, equipped with facilities for the school's five students that have learning difficulties.

The school trained a special education teacher and instilled an ethos characterized by acceptance across the school, said Yan Liping, vice headmaster.

"We told our teachers that special kids like Ji are a rare treasure, and teaching them will greatly enrich their working experience ," Yan said.

Zhang Xu, associate professor of special education with Beijing Union University, agrees that inclusion not only benefits children with disabilities, but also other children and teachers.

"Such experiences will teach them (non-disabled children) how to live in a diverse world and with people who are different from them," Zhang said.

FEARS OF EXCLUSION

About one percent of the Chinese population has been diagnosed with autism, while in the United States, 1 in every 68 has autism spectrum disorder.

A lack of special education teachers, however, is the biggest problem in China hindering efforts to enroll autistic children into regular schools.

It was not until 2000 that the first college for special education was opened at Beijing Union University. Despite this, many mainstream schools still find it difficult to hire a special education graduate.

"There is a severe scarcity of special education teachers, especially as China pushes for inclusion," Zhang said. "Other teachers should also receive special education training."

Zhang fears the inclusion campaign may end up as a show at some Chinese schools. "Some autistic students are seated in classrooms just to demonstrate the school's inclusiveness, but teachers and other students pay little attentions to them. They are still not included," she said.

Such fears were also voiced by Ji's mother. She watches her son in every class and is on standby to stop him from "disturbing other kids." She is happy to assist the teachers, other students and their parents.

"I hope it will make them like me more. So they may be nicer to my son," she said.

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