THE WIDER IMAGE

“Music is their language”: school gives autistic Chinese youth a voice

THE WIDER IMAGE

“Music is their language”: school gives autistic Chinese youth a voice

Zhao Guorong, 59, plays the keyboard as she performs with her son Zu Wenbao, 23, and Tian Yi, 44, during a practice session in Beijing, China August 21, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

"Music is their language": school gives autistic Chinese youth a voice

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Filed: December 02, 2022, 3 a.m. GMT

Almost three years of pandemic restrictions have been hard for 23-year-old Chinese villager Zu Wenbao, but thanks to Beijing-based Chen's Studio, music has become his saving grace.

Zu is one of the 14 million people in China who have autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Despite laws to ensure the integration of people with autism, many in China know little about the disorder and support remains lacking, experts say.

Autism has meant Zu was unable to fit in at school or among other young people in his home village of Bei'an in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. All that changed when he started learning music free of charge at Chen's Studio, which started lessons for people with autism just as the pandemic began.

Zu, who is non-verbal, joined the five-studio Beijing school in 2020. He has since learned to play the keyboard, and sings along with the four other members of the “Star Kids” band their teacher, Chen Shensi, set up last year for people with autism.

“Without music, without these lessons, he wouldn't have anything,” said Zu's mother, Zhao Guorong, who travels with her son every Sunday for two hours on three different buses from their current home on the outskirts of Beijing so that he can attend class.

Zu plays the keyboard during a practice session with his band Star Kids, at a music studio belonging to 38-year-old teacher Chen Shensi in Beijing, China July 31, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Chen talks with Zu during a practice session with members of Zu's band Star Kids, at Chen's music studio in Beijing, China September 11, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

“The village youngsters all go to work or school, so  without music and the band, he wouldn't have any peers to socialise with,” she added. “Even though the kids taking music classes are younger than him and half his size, they all take care of him like he's their brother.”

China has passed several laws to ensure inclusion of people with autism, most recently in September to standardize autism screening, diagnosis and intervention for young children.

While support has improved over the past 20 years, millions of children still lack the behavioural therapy and educational support they need, experts say.

Zu and Wu Jiayu, 18, who have autism spectrum disorder, sing as they perform onstage with the band My World, which is mostly made up of children aged around ten years old, at Beijing Eco Valley Smart Farm, a farm and campsite in Beijing, China September 3, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

People with autism tend to find it difficult to get jobs, and the music school's founder Chen hopes he can change that by giving his students a way to earn a living: the Star Kids band has already performed several concerts at events held at camp sites on the outskirts of Beijing.

Chen says he knew very little about autism before he started teaching a bass player with the disorder in 2020.

When COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions on movement curtailed his regular music lessons, Chen started the free-of-charge lessons for people with autism. “COVID has been hard, and I wanted to do as much as I can to give them joy through music,” he said.

Flora Tan guides her son Jackie Zheng, 29, as he practices the accordion before a performance onstage with his band Star Kids, at Beijing Eco Valley Smart Farm, a farm and campsite in Beijing, China September 3, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Chen encourages Zu, Wu Jiayu, 18, and Wang Boya, 30, to dance as they wait to perform onstage with their band Star Kids, at Renji Hotel, a campsite on the outskirts of Beijing, China September 11, 2022. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Chen admits he was very frustrated at first with his students because he had to repeat himself many times. Disciplining the class was also tough, but eventually, the students started communicating better with him and each other.

“It's just difficult for them to communicate normally with other people, let along work in a typical job, but they might be able to make a living by being an artist,” he said.

“To some degree, I think music might be their language.”


















REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zhao grabs a goose to put it back into its cage at her home in the Beijing area, China September 8, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu lies on bed as his mother Zhao prepares trousers for him to wear at their home in the Beijing area, China September 8, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu helps his mother Zhao by removing corn kernels at their home in the Beijing area, China September 8, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zhao shows a photograph of her with her son Zu, then aged 10, at Tiananmen Square on a National Day holiday, at their home in the Beijing area, China August 21, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu and his mother Zhao wait for a bus on the way to Chen’s music studio, for a practice session with members of Zu's band Star Kids, in Beijing, China August 21, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu rides on a bus going to a practice session with his band Star Kids, in Beijing, China September 11, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Wu Jiayu plays the bass during a practice session with members of her band Star Kids, at Chen’s studio, in Beijing, China September 18, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu reacts to a loud sound by covering his ears while his mother Zhao plays the keyboard during a practice session of the band formed by the mothers of Star Kids, called Mums of Star Kids, at Chen’s studio, in Beijing, China July 31, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu plays keyboard during a practice session with members of the band Star Kids, at Chen’s studio, in Beijing, China September 18, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu sings with the band My World, which is mostly made up of children aged around ten years old, during a practice session, at Chen’s studio, in Beijing, China August 21, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu rests after a practice session with members of his band Star Kids, at Chen’s studio, in Beijing, China September 11, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu sits in front of a piano during a break from a practice session with his band Star Kids, at Chen’s studio, in Beijing, China September 11, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu attends a chorus session at Xing Guang Yi Cai (Radiant Starlight), a charity which provides art and music lessons for people with autism spectrum disorder in Beijing, China, September 18, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu gestures as if he is holding a microphone during a band practice session, at Xing Guang Yi Cai, in Beijing, China September 18, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu holds hands with Jackie Zheng as they walk through booths at a market fair before their performance onstage with members of their band Star Kids, in Beijing, China September 24, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu stands as his mother Zhao talks to him at a market fair before his performance onstage with members of his band Star Kids, in Beijing, China September 24, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Siqi plays with bubbles before a performance onstage with his band Star Kids, at Beijing Eco Valley Smart Farm, a farm and campsite in Beijing, China September 3, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu and members of his band Star Kids, perform onstage at Renji Hotel, a campsite on the outskirts of Beijing, China September 11, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu plays the keyboard as he performs with members of his band Star Kids, at a market fair in Beijing, China September 24, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Members of the band Star Kids perform onstage at a market fair in Beijing, China September 24, 2022.

REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

Zu sings onstage during a performance at Renji Hotel, a campsite on the outskirts of Beijing, China September 11, 2022.

The Wider Image

Photography: Tingshu Wang

Reporting: Josh Arslan

Writing: Farah Master

Photo editing: Eve Watling and Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson

Text editing: Miral Fahmy

Design: Eve Watling



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