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03/12/2013

Mental Disabilities in China: A Visit to a Beijing Autism Institute

The morning began for everyone at 7:30.

Students from CIEE's semesterlong programs in Beijing were invited to participate in a CIEE-arranged visit to the Hongyuan Qizhi Children's Autism Recovery Center (link in Chinese) in the eastern county of Tongzhou.

In all, 30 students and 7 CIEE staff members attended the trip. After losing an hour of travel time to a wrong turn and hacing to exit the bus to clear a securitycheckpoint due to the convening 12th People's Congress in central Beijing, we made it to the school.

As educators, we strive to arrange activities for students that can help them engage China in a real and meaningful way

The purpose of this trip was to show students an aspect of China that is not readily accessible for them. Participants were able to give a bit of encouragement to the teachers and families, and to enrich the lives of the youth just a little bit, and as it happens most times during service activities like this one, our students get something out of it too.

 When we arrived, things were already a bit chaotic. The top floor which houses the students indoor play areas, was bustling with approximately 40 students ages 2 - 15 running about with teachers in tow.  Almost immediately, we encountered unexpected social behaviors (to us, at least)  someone wanting a hug, or insisting on looking in your bag or camera 

After a brief lunch with the students, we engaged in another play session that lasted for a little less than an hour.

The principal of the school, Mr. Li then came to talk to us about his troubles running the school. As a privately run institute, it faces many challenges, and even staying open is a struggle given funding limitations and social prejudice. Even though this institute was set up primarily for autistic children, yet due to wide lack of support for children with virtually any developmental disability in China, youth with all sorts of backgrounds are in fact at this facility.

For me personally, it pushed me out of my comfort zone (in a good way). I was a little unsure on how I should engage the kids. Given the wide variety of disabilities at the school (as mentioned above), there are two extremes. Some may giggle and throw a ball at you when you are not looking and then run away like any normal 8 year old, while another kid has never said a word in her life and is content sitting on a bench by herself.

What I saw required one to be non-threatening, taking a step back initially, and follow their lead while also being assertive in conveying to them your desire to engage.

It is not that they are unable to interact or engage with us and others, it is in fact we who have not figured out how to engage them yet.

While everyone got something different out of it, it was definitely a special day for everyone.

***Tune in the next couple of days for pictures from the day at the Autism Institute!

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