Lighting up the Stars: My Volunteering Experience with Autistic Children in China

In China, children with autism are often called “children from the stars”, because they perceive the world in a unique way and express their emotions in their own manner, much like the stars in the sky, each shining in their own solitary world. As a PhD student in psycholinguistics, I have always wanted to investigate the language and cognitive features of the autistic population, and to contribute to their education, social development, and overall quality of life.

With the generous support of the Trinity Hall Association, I embarked on a volunteering experience at Yangfan Rehabilitation Garden, a non-enterprise public service organization specializing in rehabilitation training for children and adolescents with special needs, especially children with autism. Yangfan is committed to enhancing the lives of autistic children and their families by providing specialized support, training and resources, and aims to help the special children enter kindergarten or primary school and integrate in normal social life. My principal objectives for this volunteering experience were to contribute to the well-being and development of autistic children and gain insight into the challenges faced by these exceptional individuals.

The volunteering work started from 1st of July. My main task at the centre was to act as a teaching assistant for a summer course. This summer course was purposely designed for autistic children who have received sufficient individual training and have significant improvement in behavioural and language performance, and therefore are going to enter the public primary school in September. I worked together with other two teachers, and our main aim was to help the children transit to the primary school life smoothly.

To be more specific, our first job was to make sure that the children get accustomed to the daily routine at local primary schools. Many autistic children exhibit a preference for structured routines and can become quite rigid in adhering to them. They may experience discomfort or distress when faced with changes in their established schedules or when transitioning from one activity to another. This rigidity in routine is a common characteristic of ASD and can pose challenges in adapting to new or unexpected situations.

Secondly, we need to help them integrate into the social life which is typical in primary schools. These children have received individual trainings at the centre for years, and although they have been given courses on social interactions, they still need more practice in interacting with classmates of their own age.

Thirdly, we offered trainings on attention and concentration span, with the hope that the children can stay focus during the 40-minute classes in the schools.

Fourthly, as some of the autistic children may also demonstrate language impairments or suffer from low IQ, we also taught them the foundational knowledge they would encounter in the upcoming term. A significant emphasis was placed on instructing them in the Pinyin system, an essential tool for developing their Mandarin language skills, and on fostering a solid understanding of numbers, which is fundamental to various aspects of their education. To maintain their interest, we used a lot of interactive teaching methods, as well as multimedia resources. In addition to these core subjects, we curated specialized courses designed to nurture creativity, enhance fine motor skills, and promote physical education. The syllabus was thoughtfully integrated into the timetable to address specific challenges that autistic children may face.

One of the key challenges encountered during this volunteering experience was the need for adaptability and innovative teaching methods. Autistic children often have distinct learning styles and communication preferences. By observing and learning from the experienced staff, I gained valuable insights into effective strategies for engaging and supporting these children. The impact of this volunteering experience was profound and far-reaching. I witnessed remarkable progress in the children’s communication skills, social interactions, and overall confidence. When I first met the children, they were very shy and refused to talk to me. However, gradually, we developed trust between each other, and they hugged me and played with me during breaks. These moments exemplify the significant strides made by the children during our time together. On a personal level, this experience broadened my horizons and deepened my appreciation for the uniqueness and resilience of autistic individuals. It enriched my communication skills, patience, and capacity for empathy. This experience has fundamentally shaped my commitment to advocating for and supporting autistic children.

In conclusion, my volunteering experience with autistic children has been an rewarding and enriching journey. I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the Trinity Hall Association for their support and belief in the value of initiatives like this. I am also grateful to the dedicated team at Yangfan Rehabilitation Garden for their guidance, mentorship, and commitment to making a difference in the lives of autistic children.