Working with autism

Updated: 2013-10-08 07:32

By Wu Ni (China Daily)

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A 21-year-old autistic man has gained employment in Shanghai Library - the first person with the disorder to do so. Wu Ni finds out his progress.

Wearing the blue uniform of Shanghai Library, Gu Jiandong sorts magazines and books and put them on the shelves. He looks no different from other workers, except for his overly serious concentration and quiet demeanor.

The 21-year-old man is Shanghai's first autism sufferer who officially gained a job to work in the library's books lending department on Sept 12, after interning for a whole year in the position.

"I am happy", "I put books on the shelf", "I give my salary to my father", were his replies when asked some simple questions.

 Working with autism

Gu Jiandong arranges books at Shanghai Library. The 21-year-old is Shanghai's first autism sufferer who officially gained a job to work in the library's books lending department in September. Gao Erqiang / China Daily

"He has made great improvement over the past year," says Chen Xiangyu, one of Gu's eight colleagues in the department.

"When he first came here, he only walked around, ignored readers' inquiries and could not focus on his work.

"We taught him the working procedure repeatedly. After he became familiar with the working environment, he was able to fulfill the work assigned to him smoothly."

Now, Gu is able to take the subway to and from work independently, eats in the library canteen with colleagues, and sends short messages to communicate with his parents. His colleagues continue to look after him, but in a more relaxed manner.

Gu works four days a week in the library with a monthly salary of 1,620 yuan ($265), which is the city's minimum wage. For two days every week, he works part-time in a sporting goods supermarket.

The young man now knows the concept of money, says his mother Zhang Minyan. "He would ask his father whether the salary has been paid, and knows he can not afford things that are too expensive. Before, he never looked at the prices."

"I don't care how much he can make. I just want him to have the chance to integrate into society," Zhang says. "If we let him stay at home, taking care of his every detail, he won't make any improvement and his life will be like being in a cage."

Gu was diagnosed with autism when he was 3.

Over the years, Zhang has made every effort to engage her son with various activities. She found the boy has the talent to play the drums and helped him form a drum band together with three autistic children. She taught the boy to play ping-pong to train him to focus, asked him to sing and perform before an audience whenever he had a chance and organized basketball games for autistic children to play together.

Gu studied in ordinary primary and middle schools, thanks to a policy by the city's education authorities that public schools should never say no to autistic children. He also learned baking in a special education school.

Ding Cui, Gu's teacher in the Shanghai Changning District Primary Vocational School, says the school conducts courses on psychological health, language, basic math, cooking, baking and gardening for autistic students.

Autistic sufferers are characterized by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior, so Ding suggests they choose jobs involving less communication, such as organizing goods in a supermarket, sorting books in a library, delivering newspapers, watering plants in parks, playing musical instruments and painting.

In reality, however, employers tend to shun these people for fear of trouble or failing to understand their seemingly "weird behavior".

Gu's position in the library was discreetly considered, according to Liu Yan, a library official.

"The major problems of those with autism lie in communication and social interaction, therefore, we designed a position involving some social contact but less mingling with readers. At the same time, he gets to experience working life and earn his own living," Liu says.

But she admits that it is part of the library's social responsibility and offering more such positions would be difficult.

Since the first official diagnosis of autism in China in 1985, thousands of autistic children have reached adulthood and most are not as lucky as Gu.

Many stayed at home with their families after leaving school at 16, as they have no place to go nor skills to live independently, according to Wen Hong, chairman of China Association of Persons with Psychiatric Disability and Their Relatives.

"The risk is that the capabilities they achieved through rehabilitation in school would be degraded and they become a burden to their families," she says.

There are care centers where less severe autistic sufferers can do some handiwork but that's restricted to only some big cities. And the centers are facing a shortage of social workers who are capable of attending to these people, she says.

Working with autism

It is estimated that China has at least 1.5 million autistic sufferers, while Wen believes the real number is much higher. Authoritative national data is not yet available.

Around the world, the number of children diagnosed with autism is increasing rapidly. The latest US report says that 2 percent of children under 17 in the country have been diagnosed with autism, according to Wen.

In 2012, Wen founded Kangnazhou, a non-governmental organization that aims to provide life skill training to older autistic children.

"For autistic children, earning a living with dignity is an important step to integrate into society. We need to provide a tolerant and supportive atmosphere for them," she says.

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(China Daily 10/08/2013 page20)