'Children of the stars' receive support, training

Yang Wenjie
A special show called "Being Friends With Stars" was recently staged at the TODTOWN Corridor in Minhang to celebrate the International Children's Day on June 1.
Yang Wenjie

A special show called "Being Friends With Stars" was recently staged at the TODTOWN Corridor, a "transit-oriented development" of retail, commercial and residential facilities in Minhang, to celebrate the International Children's Day on June 1.

The performance featured autistic children and their parents.

Autistic children have come to be called "children of the stars" after a 2007 documentary film of the same, directed by Rob Aspey, which followed the story of the parents of an autistic child who traveled across China so their 5-year-old son could attend a special school for autistic children in Beijing.

The TODTOWN show was another reminder that the "stars" do have legions of "friends" in Minhang – people and organizations committed to helping the autistic lead normal lives as much as possible.

One of those organizations is the Rainbow Mother Workshop. Founded in 2013, it was one of the first groups in the district to offer support and assistance to families with autistic children.

Founder Zhang Canhong, herself the mother of an autistic child, first realized that her son was different from other children at a young age.

Jiawei learned to crawl much later than other toddlers and seldom responded when people talked to him. A doctor diagnosed autism.

"We think they know to handle common things, but they really don't," Zhang said of special needs children. "They have to be taught almost anything, and it has to be repeated 1,000 times. Even when they master one thing, it doesn't mean to lead to mastery of something related."

Experiences like crossing a street or putting on more clothes when it's cold had to be repeated and repeated and repeated. It took 6 years before Jiawei finally called his parents "mom" and "dad."

Recalling all the efforts they put into helping their son, Zhang said it was like "programming a computer."

The family struggled alone until Zhang found other families with the same problem. She gathered together four such families to share comfort, ideas and support.

Today her workshop serves for over 300 families. They spend time together discussing how to cultivate living and social skills in their autistic children. But the most popular segment of the workshop is the respite service, which allows parents to take breaks from their children and recharge their energy, while volunteers care for the children.

There are other groups in the district that provide different kinds of services to parents of autistic children.

One of them is Feiye Art Education, which started out as an ordinary school.

But about a decade ago, one of the classes included an autistic child who thrived in the painting class. Word spread, and soon more parents were bringing their autistic children to the school for the art teaching.

Now a special education facility, the school has some pupils aged between 4 and 20. Its curriculum includes painting, writing, singing, basketball, handicrafts and acting – all designed to help the autistic develop their senses.

Singing for example, may help them speak at the proper volumes instead of shouting. Acting gives them the experience of moving through daily life settings, like shopping in a store.

The education is tailored to a wide range of capabilities. Pupils who may not be able to hold a pen are given assistance in making each stoke. When they write short passages, pictures are used to assist in their understanding of what they are describing.

Some passages are posted on the wall to mark their feelings and achievements. One of them is a diary entry by a child surnamed Lin who managed to describe a memorable Arbor Day at the school and visiting volunteers, whom he calls "aunties."

Liu Chun has been a teacher at the school for more than a dozen years.

"It's long-term work, and we need to give constant input," said Liu. "We strive for that point when the children may come to realize that what they learn is relevant to themselves and their lives. Each family has a story here."

Liu said there was a family who tried to taught their child how to crack an egg and they indeed cracked hundreds of eggs for the child to get the skill.

Apart from the lessons, the children are assigned tasks like setting the table where they all dine together and doing the washing up afterwards.

"That is what regular daily life is like, and it helps the children have a sense of group participation," Liu said.

The school once rented part of the Lyceum Theatre for an activity where both children and their parents performed on stage.

And some of the children's paintings were reprinted on stamps in Macau to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the city's return to Chinese sovereignty.

"Compassion, and not pity, is what's needed for these children," Liu said. "The children have their own ways of communicating among themselves."

One of the special teachers at the school, who goes by the name Longlong, is a former student of the facility. Now 26, he managed to finish college and even passed a college-level English test.

The Autistic Volunteers Association in Minhang has helped develop projects to give autistic people work experience. Two years ago, it linked up with a company on growing peanut seedlings, which can be eaten raw or cooked.

Autistic people are hired for a manual part of the process that involves placing the seedlings in lines on cultivating plates. It's repetitive, simple work, but it gives autistic people the chance to do something worthwhile and boost their self-confidence.

The endeavor is called "The Seedling of Hope." Over the past two years, 20,000 packets of seedlings have been sold. Each autistic child works there two or three hours a day and gets paid 30 yuan (US$4.7).

The earnings are a drop in the bucket for a family, but "the important thing is that the children learn the idea of earning through labor," the association's head Ouyang said.

The workshop joined hands with a supermarket in Qibao Town to set up a stall at a charity sale earlier this month. A chef stir-fried the seedlings to give customers a taste of the product. Many buyers were interested to hear about the story behind the seedlings.

Another work project attached to a community care center in Meilong Town operates at Sun Café. An autistic barrister surnamed Yao works here. He takes orders and makes cups of coffee.

"It was difficult in the beginning, but then it got easier," said Yao, who could barely speak clearly or know to pour water for a new customer coming in.

"We are happy to watch each other's progress," said Jin Jing, head of the café. "Now Yao can make a latte pattern on the coffees."

When it's not busy in the café, Yao also does volunteer work delivering meals to the elderly in the community. At first, staff accompanied him on the routes, but soon he was able to do them by himself.

"We can trust him to do these," Jin said.

Yao's transformation has been remarkable. He is paid the same as other employees, giving half his paycheck to his mother and saving up the rest. In April, he bought himself a ticket to the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition from his savings and went unassisted to the event.

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