China's autism parents walk lonely road for help

Wed Apr 1, 2009 4:09am EDT
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By Lucy Hornby

BEIJING (Reuters) - When Li Mingqiu was two, his parents noticed that he had lost the ability to speak, didn't respond to his name, and was fixated by television commercials.

Even though the hospital gave him a clean bill of health, his mother was convinced there was something wrong. After exhaustive research on the Internet, she came up with the answer: autism.

For decades, autism went largely undiagnosed in China even as in the West awareness was growing of the condition. China only recognized autism as a disability in 2006.

"Autism is very unknown in China. If you ask people on the street, 90 percent of them have never heard of it," said Tian Huiping, the founder of China's pioneering school for autism, Stars and Rain, in the suburbs of Beijing.

Mingqiu is one of China's luckier children because he was diagnosed early. By the time many autistic children arrive at the special schools springing up across China, they are too old for therapy that might give them some semblance of a normal life.

"The only way we know to improve the prognosis is early intervention. That's what makes early diagnosis so important. The earlier, the better," said Li-Ching Lee, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In the West, autism and related disorders strike between two and six of every 1,000 children, or one in every 166 children. With China's enormous population, that means at least 2.6 million people might have autism, although there is no conclusive data.

"There are a lot of resources and expertise concentrated in Beijing, but it takes a lot for families to travel here, financially," said Lee, who is developing screening tests for the disorder.   Continued...

<p>An autistic child reacts during a therapy session at the Stars and Rain School for autistic children in Beijing March 23, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Lee</p>