China / Society

Chinese advocates pave way for autistic children

By Judith Huang ( Updated: 2016-07-22 14:34

Chinese advocates pave way for autistic children

Children at a summer camp for autistic children in Zhengzhou, Henan province. [Photo provided to]

When Zhao Hua's daughter Yi Jia was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 1998, there weren't any doctors in Zhengzhou, the city in Henan province where she lived. She had to travel all the way to Beijing to find a doctor who could tell her what was wrong with her child.

"When Yi Jia was young, no school would take her so I had to give up my job to look after her," says Zhao. "Even ten years ago, I wouldn't have thought things would improve so much." Since 2013, students with disabilities can no longer be rejected by public schools.

"The general level of awareness about autism has risen a lot. Back then, my friends and colleagues thought her behavior was due to me not disciplining her properly, so I faced a lot of pressure. At least now most people have heard of autism, and thanks to exposure in the media and information from other countries."

Improved conditions for children and adults living with ASD are due to changes both from top down – the government and policymakers - and bottom up – thanks to activists and parents' groups.

"Ever since China ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, things have improved a lot," said Lian Jinhai, 38, another father of a child with ASD in Zhengzhou. "At least the government has to present a report every few years about what they are doing for people with disabilities, and people are learning that disabled people have rights too."

Much of the impetus for local change has also come from the bottom up, through parents' organizations and groups that have raised awareness among educators and government officials about the needs of this marginalized group.

Lian, who worked at a Henan TV station, is involved in advocacy for better conditions for autistic people in China, particularly for inclusion education, in which children with disabilities are educated alongside normal children in regular schools, but with special needs teachers to support their learning.

"Social media has been instrumental in raising awareness of the need for inclusion education," said Lian, who runs a WeChat group for media professionals interested in Special Needs education.

He has also helped organize information sessions with overseas experts brought into Zhengzhou to speak on ASD to educators, government officials and parents about the condition.

However, many misconceptions about people with ASD are still being perpetrated in society. For example, Lian cites an article in the local Zhengzhou media that called autistic children "emotionless".

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