"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 of the band formed by the mothers of Star Kids, called Mums of Star Kids, at the music studio of 38-year-old teacher Chen Shensi in Beijing, China August 21, 2022. Almost three years of pandemic restrictions have been especially hard for Zu, who has autism spectrum disorder, but thanks to Chen's Studio, music has become his saving grace. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Zu Wenbao, 23, plays the keyboard as he performs with members of his band Star Kids, who like him are all adults with autism spectrum disorder, at a market fair in Beijing, China September 24, 2022. Zu, who is non-verbal, started learning music free of charge at Chen's Studio, which started lessons for people with autism just as the pandemic began. 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. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Zu Wenbao, 23, plays the keyboard during a practice session with his band Star Kids, who like him are all adults with autism spectrum disorder, at a music studio belonging to 38-year-old teacher Chen Shensi in Beijing, China July 31, 2022. "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 to Beijing so that he can attend class. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Teacher Chen Shensi, 38, talks with Zu Wenbao, 23, during a practice session with members of Zu's band Star Kids, who like him are all adults with autism spectrum disorder, at Chen's music studio in Beijing, China September 11, 2022. Zu, who is non-verbal, started learning music free of charge at Chen's Studio, which started lessons for people with autism just as the pandemic began. He has since learned to play the keyboard, and sings along with the four other members of the Star Kids band their teacher, Chen, set up last year for people with autism. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Flora Tan guides her son Jackie Zheng, 29, as he practices the accordion before a performance onstage with his band Star Kids, who like him are all adults with autism spectrum disorder, at Beijing Eco Valley Smart Farm, a farm and campsite in Beijing, China September 3, 2022. "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," Zheng's music teacher Chen Shensi said. "To some degree, I think music might be their language." REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

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.

"The village youngsters all go to work or school, so without music and the band, he wouldn't have any peers to socialize 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 the 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 behavioral therapy and educational support they need, experts say.

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 campsites 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.

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."


Related Articles