17th March 2014
Autism in China: a silent epidemic
Nick Compton reveals how a Beijing Autism centre is battling prejudice and China’s nascent welfare system to provide hope for families living with Autism
It’s just past 10am and at the Beijing Stars and Rain Group Home in a bleak eastern suburb of the capital, 17-year-old Zhu Yao is unsettled about cookies.
He’s pacing nervously and clenching his fists because at this time every day he begins the long, surprisingly complex task of baking cookies. He cracks the eggs, prepares the dry ingredients, blends the mix, and rolls the dough flat before stamping out miniature heart-shaped sweets baked in a convection oven and sold for 15 kuai per dozen. Today, though, the process is halted because there are no eggs. “Zhu Yao, relax,” says Lafayette, a volunteer working at the Group Home. “We’ll start in a second, as soon as we can.”
Zhu Yao’s rigid inflexibility, his absolute insistence that life be predictable and routine, is a symptom of his disorder – Autism. At the Group Home, a converted three-story villa, Zhu Yao and five other moderate to severely Autistic children between the ages of 12 and 18 receive treatment five days a week from 9am to 5pm.
The need for such a facility is evident to anyone who cares to look. It’s become a widely accepted fact among healthcare professionals that the reported prevalence of Autism is skyrocketing across the world. This trend didn’t skip China. However, while early-intervention facilities aiming to educate young children with Autism have popped up in China’s developed areas, facilities providing meaningful life skills for older children who will soon graduate China’s nine-year compulsory schooling system are painfully few.