The number of children being diagnosed with autism is rising around the world, and China is no exception. According to a report released by the Autism Research Center under the Chinese Society of Education, there are over 10 million individuals with autism in China. Of these, two billion are likely to be children.
The potential impact of early intervention is well-documented, but children in China may be at a disadvantage compared to their peers in other countries. There are currently less than 100 doctors who are qualified to diagnose autism, according to Han Jibin, an official from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, leaving them less likely to receive treatment during the time period when it can have the most impact.
Educational and social supports are also sorely lacking in China. According to Wen Hong, secretary-general of the China Association of Persons with Psychiatric Disability and Their Relatives, China currently has approximately 400 autism service organizations, over 70% of which are run by small, private groups. Larger organizations average 30 to 40 teachers, while smaller ones average 7 or 8, and few hold special-education degrees. There are also few universities equipped to train teachers in methods used to educate students with autism. Special-education teachers are also poorly compensated, causing many to leave the profession for more lucrative careers.
“It’s time for the government to speed up the pace to establish more classes about autism in colleges and medical universities to cultivate more professionals,”
said Han Xiaoyan, director of the Autistic Children Rehabilitation Training and Research Base of the Sixth Hospital of Peking University.
Luckily, there are some researchers who are working to improve services in China. Dr. Josephine Barbaro of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, designed a screening program for nurses in Tianjin, China. Tianjin is a large city, with over 100,000 births annually, so the potential for quality research and early intervention is good.
Dr. Barbaro hopes this initiative can relieve some of the social stigma that still surrounds autism in China, and will help more children get the help they need. She says,
“Autism was not recognized as an official diagnosis [in China] until 2006, and there has been a history, and obviously still continues to be a history, of there being this stigma surrounding autism or just disability in general. If we can try and work together to decrease the stigma and show that children with autism can lead quite fulfilling lives, many of them lead very independent lives.”
This stigma can be a significant barrier in China, where the national one-child policy leads to intense pressure for a “perfect” child. Many parents will be reluctant to seek an early diagnosis, and even for those who do, there are few trained professionals available to offer adequate services. Clearly, the autism epidemic is a world-wide issue, and if nothing changes, children in China may be at a significant disadvantage.