The Inclusive School Fighting China’s Stigma Against Autism

Ni Dandan:

For once, the kindergarten classroom in Dongguan is quiet. Around the room, 28 young children nap on small single beds. When their teachers gently wake them in the early afternoon, Duan Yiyang stretches, removes his eye mask, and exchanges his pajamas for his orange school uniform.

Like most of his peers here, 5-year-old Duan is a gentle, polite kid. He patiently waits in line for afternoon dessert, compliments his classmates on their drawings, and pays close attention to his teachers. Only small details indicate that Duan has autism. The eye mask, for instance, blocks out any light that stops him from sleeping — a common problem among autistic children, who tend to find it harder to nod off than other kids. When he speaks, Duan tends to use simpler language than his peers and sometimes fails to complete his sentences. On rare occasions, he loses his temper and becomes disruptive.

Duan, who was diagnosed with a mild form of autism spectrum disorder at 2 years old, is now in his second year at Dongguan Yulan Experimental Kindergarten, known locally as “Yulan.” The public preschool is the only facility in the southern Chinese city that offers so-called integrated education — a model that has preschoolers without special needs learn, play, and socialize alongside those receiving support for certain conditions. Of the 160 kids enrolled here, 18 require extra learning support due to autism and other conditions, like cerebral palsy, and hearing disabilities. This relatively high ratio means that each class of around 30 children accommodates two or three with special needs.