PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

South China Morning Post, Jan 4, 2006

Lack of support leaves families in limbo

BY PAUL MOONEY

Like most parents of autistic children, Wang Yuxiu refused to accept there was a problem with her three-year-old son, Yijian. 'He couldn't speak and wasn't like other children,' she says, 'but I thought he was just a late learner.' Later that year, in 1989, she took the boy to all the major hospitals in Beijing.

Ms Wang recounts how one doctor informed her that her son was 'not normal'. When she asked in what way, the doctor replied: 'He's just not normal.'

Finally, a doctor diagnosed the boy as suffering from autism. Ms Wang says she had not heard of the illness before, and didn't think it was serious.

But all that changed after watching a documentary on autism. 'We watched it and cried,' she said. 'We didn't realise how serious this was.' She says she was offered some basic information on training her son, but was then on her own.

Although Yijian, now 19, seems to have a mild problem compared with many other autistic children, there weren't any schools in Beijing that accepted autistic children when he was younger. 'In China, if you're not a normal child, you can't attend a normal school,' Ms Wang said. Until he was 16, Yijian attended a special education programme for mentally retarded children.

Like many people suffering from autism, Yijian has one exceptional ability. He successfully taught himself English, and while his Chinese reading skills remain at the third- or fourth-grade level, his English reading level is more advanced. In an English class one day, Yijian - or Bill as he is known by his English name - outshines the other Chinese taking part in the conversation with a foreign teacher, despite the fact that many of the participants were university graduates.

Ms Wang remains cynical about government efforts to help people with autism. She says Yijian hasn't had any contact with doctors in six years, although she says she calls a doctor 'once in a while'.

'I keep searching the internet for information,' she said, 'but everything that's being done is by parents and NGOs.'

Ms Wang, whose husband left her shortly after Yijian was diagnosed with autism, raised her son on her own and, like the parents of other autistic children, she hasn't planned for the day when she can no longer care for her son.

'I don't like to think about it,' she said. 'It breaks my heart.'