"We Hold Your Hands"
~ A Journey to Help Children with Autism in China in 2014 ~
by Claire Hu
Last semester, I received the Julie Davis Butler Award at San Domenico High School. The award was to be used toward social services. In the summer, I used the award to organize activities aimed at promoting autism awareness in Hangzhou, China. My project consisted of two parts: first, I gained knowledge of the first-hand experience with autism at Peking University 6th Hospital Rehabilitation and Training Center for Autistic Children (BRAC). Second, I organized fun activities for autistic children at Hangzhou Healthy Primary School (HHPS).
During the first two weeks of July, I volunteered at the BARC. It was founded by Peking University No. Six Hospital, a reputable public hospital in Beijing. During my time there, I assisted teachers in classes. My responsibilities included preparing teaching materials and helping students with their work in class. My experience there was eye-opening. I was impressed by the creative power some autistic children are endowed with. There was a boy who was obsessed with robots. During an art class where students were taught to draw Peking opera masks, the boy's product turned out to be in circles and squares. He drew a robot out of a Peking opera mask. After finishing a drawing, students were asked to sign and date their works. A boy who loved numbers wrote a series of random numbers on his paper. I asked if he was trying to write down the date, and he told me that it was a circulating decimal. He was only six.
Near the end of my time at BARC, as the children and I got closer, they began to show me interest and affection. One time, as I was handing out toys to the kids, a boy accidentally hit me in the arm. He immediately apologized, gently rubbed my arm, and kept saying sorry. I told him it was fine and hugged him. All of a sudden I was surrounded by four or five children, all were asking to be hugged. I realized that although autistic children often have impaired social interaction, they need as much affection as normal children.
Talking about the future of these children, Ms. Cao at BARC got a bit emotional. She told me that more than 70 percent of the children at BARC are able to attend primary school. However, most of them will not be able to graduate because they cannot concentrate as well as other kids. To say they cannot concentrate is a bit misleading. Many autistic children actually concentrate quite well, just not on things they are told to concentrate on. For example, the boy who loves robots has his mind fixated on squares and circles; the boy who loves numbers can spend all day concentrating on numbers. However, when a teacher tells them to do something else, it is difficult for them to take their mind off what was already occupying it. Mr. Cao said that teachers in normal schools are never trained to educate autistic children and she fears for their future.
After volunteering at the BARC, I returned to Hangzhou, the capital of my home
province. Over the past few years, I have established a network connecting children at HHPS and Chinese students studying in American high schools. Special needs children in China rarely have friends outside of school, and my goal was to bring them friends and fun activities over the summer. During the last two weeks of July, I volunteered at
the HHPS and used the Julie Davis Butler Award money toward a fashion show with clothes made by autistic children at the HHPS. The fashion show received much media attention, exactly what we needed to raise awareness around autism. The audience was struck by the creativity of autistic children. The quality of some of the fashion pieces was beyond the children?s age. A parent mentioned that she never knew her son had a talent in drawing. Before that day, like many other parents of autistic children in China, she thought that her son was mentally challenged and would not be successful in life. Now she has hired a painting tutor for her son, hoping to help him develop his talent and interest.
Without knowledge of autism, society treats autistic children as abnormal. Some parents still refuse to acknowledge that their children are autistic because of the stigma attached to autism. Those who want help for their autistic children find a shortage of resources. However, autistic children are not abnormal; they are just different. While
a standardized education might not suit autistic children, they often are exceptionally
talented in specific areas. With proper help, their potential s can be discovered and they can be taught to lead a happy and fulfilling life. Some autistic children need their personal space and parents need to learn to respect that. Some autistic children need attention and affection and parents need to provide them with that. There is still a
long way to go for every autistic child in China to receive appropriate help. There is still a long way to go for scientists to gain a full understanding of autism. However, everything starts with autism receiving the societal respect it deserves.