Cheng Yanbin always knew his son, nicknamed Junjun, was different from other kids. Whenever his fellow kindergarteners played together in gleeful twos and threes, Junjun sat off to one side and didn’t join in the fun. “Other kids would laugh at a funny game or story, but his facial expression just stayed the same,” says Cheng.
The now 12-year-old Junjun — whose real name is not being used to protect his privacy — exhibited other strange behaviors, too. He obsessively pursued certain interests, compulsively repeated certain actions, and often struggled to contain his emotions. In 2011, when Junjun was 6 years old, Cheng took him to see a psychologist at a hospital in Beijing, where the family lives. The psychologist said Junjun had a condition that Cheng had never heard of: Asperger’s syndrome.
“It was a completely new concept to me,” says the middle-aged electronics engineer. “My wife was calmer about it, though. She said she did similar things when she was a kid, but gradually grew out of them.” Cheng adds that, during his wife’s childhood, her parents assumed that she was excessively disobedient, and never approached a doctor about her behavior.
No official data exists on how many children in China live with neurodevelopmental disorders, which include Asperger’s, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (Health care professionals generally categorize Asperger’s as a mild form of ASD.) A 2016 study by The Lancet concluded that China was home to the second-highest number of children under 5 who live with ASD, after India. The same study found that China had the highest number of children under 5 living with ADHD. (In the United States, around 1.1 percent of children between 3 and 17 years old have ASD, and around 6.8 percent have ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
A boy plays with his shadow at a school for children with autism in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, April 3, 2013. Hu Yuanjia/VCG