Integrated education helping autistic children bond with classmates
Hengheng, 13, is a fifth-grade student at Pingyang Primary School in Minhang District. He is taller than his classmates because he is two years older. He is also autistic.
The boy was enrolled in the school in 2013 as part of efforts to integrate mentally impaired children in mainstream education. His IQ is fine, but Hengheng has trouble communicating and learning. He does excel at painting.
Despite his handicaps, Hengheng has managed to assimilate with classmates. He often invites them to join him on field trips or come to his home for dinner.
“But this is not only about him,” said Cao Bingbing, coordinator of Hengheng’s class. “We have all learned a great deal about autism that we never would have learned in books.”
Zhu Hong, headmaster of the school, said the decision to enroll Hengheng was difficult, but it has proven to be the right thing to do. More autistic kids deserve the chance to have education equal to and with their peers, she said.
According to Chinese law, all children have the right to nine-year compulsory education. A school can suggest the parents that their autistic children attend special schools, but they cannot force that choice on them.
When Zhu first encountered Hengheng five years ago, he was more catatonic. He sometimes has screaming fits that frightened the other children. She suggested to his parents that they might enroll him in a special school for autistic children. But his mother, surnamed Zhang, refused. She wanted him to mix with normal children, not live a life apart.
At first, Hengheng attended classes in the morning and went to a treatment facility to receive professional help in the afternoon. His mother quit a high-paying job so she could accompany Hengheng to school. That required approval from the Minhang Education Bureau.
Classmates at first didn’t know what to make of him. He seemed to drift in and out of his own world, hardly talking to anyone. He often started crying for no reason, or would rush to the blackboard and draw graffiti, then run from the classroom.
“He was stronger than other kids,” said Cao. “He used to shove classmates away when he got upset.”
Once when Hengheng was screaming in class, not even his teacher or his mother could calm him. But a classmate named Congcong, who sat in front of Hengheng, noticed that he was trying to throw a paper wad into the wastebasket. He stopped screaming immediately after the wad landed in the bin.
To some degree, the success of the mainstreaming rested on the fact that children, unlike most adults, are pretty forgiving about oddities. Hengheng’s classmates observed his behavior and began to understand why he did what he did.
“We didn’t specifically instruct the children much about Hengheng’s condition,” said Zhu. “But they seemed to understand and wanted to help him.”
Classmates brought candy to school, which was technically against the rules, to give to Hengheng when he needed calming down.
Their benevolence and understanding gradually created a close bond between Hengheng and his classmates, and Hengheng increasingly came out of his shell with each passing year.
Autism is a condition that has come out of the closet in China in recent years. It is more readily diagnosed and treated nowadays, and public awareness campaigns have removed stigmas of the past.
According to Minhang Qizhi School, a special school in Minhang that provides courses and treatment to mentally handicapped students, the number of autistic students in the school increased from 36 in 2009 to 66 in 2017.
“It is particularly hard to communicate with autistic kids,” said Zhu Xiaoqing, a teacher in the school.
They often lack the capacity to learn or communicate properly, staying locked up in their own thoughts or engaging in behavior that is not the norm.
At Qizhi, teachers give the students individualized attention. The school established Starry Sky Studio, in conjunction with professionals from East China Normal University, to customize coursework for autistic children.
“Depending on their interests and personalities, we teach them different skills,” said Shi Xiaojing, headmaster of Qizhi school.
Shi said it’s nearly impossible for most autistic kids to study and play like normal children, but the school does encourage them to open up and talk whenever they get stressed.
Both Shi and teacher Zhu know about Hengheng’s case. They said integrated education like his is considered an advanced method of teaching social skills to autistic children.
“But how to define whether a given child is suitable for such a path is more tricky,” said Shi.
Jin Xingming, a pediatrician from Shanghai Children’s Medical Center, told Shanghai Daily that mainstreaming autistic children can be fraught with problems.
“What Hengheng has accomplished is impressive,” said Jin. “But not all autistic children can do that. Some kids just cannot fit into a community, and trying to push them to do so could be harmful.”
Faculty resources are a major stumbling block for mainstreaming efforts.
“Hengheng wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as he has without teachers like Cao,” said the boy’s mother. “I had a friend who had to withdraw her autistic child from a normal school because the teacher there didn’t know how to deal with autism.”
Gu Jie, an officer in the Minhang bureau for exceptional children, said there are more than 300 exceptional children who attend normal primary schools in the district. They include autistic, blind and deaf students.
“We don’t have enough teachers who specialize in mentally handicapped kids,” said Gu. “We now send teachers willing to specialize to East China Normal University to attend courses in special education.”
This year, Minhang District is planning to expand mainstreaming to more primary schools.
Citywide, Shanghai had more than 8,000 exceptional children as of last September. Half were in mainstream education.
This September, after graduating from Pingyang Primary School, Hengheng will be enrolled in a private facility for autistic children.
“He will always be our friend, no matter where he goes,” said Congcong.
Names of the students have been altered to protect privacy.