Although over the past two decades the topic of the autism spectrum has widened in awareness, diagnosis, and treatment, families still struggle to cope with autism and the social stigma surrounding it. Known as the “Lonely Illness,” autism wasn’t officially recognized in China until 2006, albeit recognized as a disability.
Before, autism carried a disgrace and social nonacceptance as in modern-day France. The specifics of the condition were unfamiliar, and therefore many children were misdiagnosed by teachers and doctors alike. “Many years ago, a child came to me and he seemed strange. We wondered if he was a handicapped genius,” explained Dr Jia Meixiang, an autism specialist at Peking University No. 6 Hospital. “He was quick with numbers, and could calculate faster than a calculator, right down to several decimal places. But (he lacked)…social interaction (skills). So we weren’t sure how to categorize him.”
Publicity from the health department has improved awareness and diagnostic skills. Those with autism are being diagnosed at an earlier age, improving their chances for treatment.
Even though more children are being treated for autism, the stigma and general social disapproval of autism has still caused major problems for children and their families. Few parents will speak publicly about autism or their autistic children for fear of being identified. They worry about if their child could attend regular schools, or, if not, if their child would be able to attend special schools for autism which have long waiting lists.
For now, Chinese parents are hopeful. For the estimated 1 million autistic children in China, those who receive early treatment tend to relate better to others and assimilate well with society. However, more awareness, research, education, and investment – not to mention a good dose of greater social acceptance – is key to helping autistic children succeed in society, and society succeed with autistic children.