Pushing for public awareness

Updated: Nov 21, 2022 Print
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A woman in Yunnan has been leading an effort over the past decade to help children on the autism spectrum, Li Yingxue reports.

Since she founded Look at Me, a children's development center in Kunming, Yunnan province, in 2010, Sha Jingmei, 38, has focused her efforts on helping kids on the autism spectrum.

She says the children should not be labeled as those with "social interaction difficulties, language issues, anxiety" and similar tags despite facing such challenges.

Children with autism are like "people inside a bottle who can clearly see the world outside, but can't get out of the bottle to communicate with others", she says, adding that in order to help the children, people should try to understand them first.

"Children with autism will not behave the same way as other children. When meeting them on the street, please don't look at them with a discriminatory look. Sometimes they just need a kind look which can make them less psychologically tense and stressful," Sha says.

From giving the children professional rehabilitation training to helping them better adapt to society, Sha's work aims to improve their quality of life and increase public awareness of autism.

So far, Sha has provided professional rehabilitation training to more than 400 children with psychological disorders, solved problems of going to school for over 500 families and secured over 6 million yuan ($851,400) in funding for children with disabilities.

In 2002, she applied to become a speaking coach in Kunming. She thought the job was to teach Mandarin, which the then-17-year-old girl from the Yi ethnic group in Yunnan's mountain area was herself not too confident about.

"When I started the job I realized that speaking training was not to teach people to speak correctly, but it was about teaching children with pre-lingual deafness to talk starting by making sounds," she says, adding that during her four months her job was to make a three-year-old girl adapt to language.

Sha was so stressed back then that she could only sleep for four hours daily, yet found it hard to teach the girl to talk. "Even when you grabbed her favorite snack, she would not make a sound," Sha recalls.

When she finally heard the girl cry, Sha was happy. But she left the job later to join a kindergarten as a teacher and then taught at a primary school. When the new semester started, Sha noticed the little girl was among the new students at the school. What surprised Sha was that the girl who didn't talk at all earlier was then calling her "teacher" in a clear voice.

"I realized I should not have given up two years ago, and the efforts made for children with disabilities were worth it," Sha says. "I could have been the teacher who taught her how to speak out."

Sha then decided to return to special education and became a language training teacher at Yunnan Disabled Persons' Federation.

"The best time to rehabilitate children with autism is before they turn 7, and training for these children cannot be delayed," Sha says.

With that thought in mind, Sha quit her job and founded the children's development center in the provincial capital Kunming that provides training in behavior, cognition, language, understanding and social integration in individual and group classes. Each training class is set according to a child's development requirements and the group classes conduct teaching and training in music, dance, sports, arts and crafts.

"Hopefully, after the rehabilitation training, our children will be able to take care of themselves and integrate into society," Sha says.

Her center has met many difficulties since its founding, because of the misunderstanding about children with autism in society. For example, the children would often make a lot of noise that affected the surrounding residents who complained to local authorities. To provide a better environment for the children, Sha got the center relocated several times.

"Being in the special education industry, you need a kind of self-cultivation that can make your mind calmer and more rational," she says.

Sha regularly arranges psychological counseling for her teachers so that the team can stay longer in special education which is better for the children.

Ma Shiyan, 28, director of Look at Me, remembers the time she joined Sha's team 4 years ago and was at a loss when a boy got emotional. Sha came and easily smoothed the boy's emotions.

Ma has learned a lot from Sha and is touched by her positive energy whether dealing with children or the difficulties when running the training center.

"Sha knows the condition of each child at our center, and when we discuss one child's case, she can often associate it with another kid's case," Ma says.

Besides teaching and training, Sha also tries to find ways to raise funds for the families that have children with autism and need financial help.

"As a member of Kunming Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Sha always submits proposals about children with disabilities in the city," Ma says.

Sha has called on college students in Yunnan to join volunteer efforts to help people with disabilities. Since 2014, she has visited universities to introduce autism-related awareness to the students and arrange events for them to join.

"Instead of lying in their dorms on a weekend afternoon, I think they can take part in a public service activity to know more about children with autism. Even though they might not work in special education in the future, when they get into society, at least they can provide more understanding when meeting autistic children," she says.

Sha says in recent years special education in Yunnan has noticeably progressed, with teaching teams growing and the supporting hardware being updated, especially for some remote ethnic areas.

She has set her plans for the development of her training center and one step is to strengthen cooperation with organizations outside Yunnan.

Sha has launched a team project to draw more attention to autism in the hopes that the government will give more funding and supporting policies to institutions that provide rehabilitation for children with autism.

"During the past decades, besides more government support, parents have also become more aware of autism and they are looking for a scientific approach to the children's education," Sha says.

With 30 staff members, the training center now teaches around 70 children from ages 2 to 16 on three separate campuses in Kunming. Some of the students have left after training for regular kindergartens or primary schools, or special education schools.

When naming the training center Look at Me 12 years ago, Sha says she hopes society would pay more attention to children on the autism spectrum. Now, she has furthered the goal to help the children take care of themselves, as well as have jobs to sustain. Some of the older children from the center have found jobs in a local coffee company or at a bar. In the future, Sha aims to find more jobs for such children.

Working in special education means dealing with different challenges, and this makes Sha feel she is alive. "You are thinking of how to solve different problems each day," she says.

Sha says the biggest change for her since starting the work is getting a different mentality. "Before I used to think that these children were just poor, but now I feel full of positive energy seeing their families. Their spirit of not giving up always encourages me."


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