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To Catch a Falling Star By Ed Jocelyn & Wu Runmei

28.jpg (9299 bytes)Tian Huiping hesitates for the first time, looks towards the ceiling and takes a moment to answer.

"I am divorced,"she says. "Sometimes I think, if my son were not autistic, if I hadn't set up the school, I would be living another, totally different life. I stepped onto another road because my son is autistic."

Tian gives a laugh and taps the ash off her cigarette. "If I had thought about so many things then as I do now, I wouldn't have dared to step out."

The Mother

The cries of children at play filter up the stairwell to where Tian sits. It is 10 years since her son was diagnosed autistic. He was 4 years old.

"I had never heard of autism before. It took a long time before I understood what it was. From some English-language materials, I learned that it was incurable, and that's all I knew."

Tian also learned that there was nowhere and no one to turn to.

"Parents of autistic children can't expect any help from society. It's not just a question of financial help; they cannot get specialized help either.

"More then 98 percent of autistic children have to stay at home because they are rejected by kindergartens even if they are very high-functional --autistic children have very poor social skills. Attending school is a dream."

From her home in Chongqing, Sichuan, Tian came to Beijing in late-1992 looking for medical help for her son, only to be told there was none. Early the next year she was back in the capital for a spell in hospital, when she happened on a small brochure offering an alternative to despair. 29.jpg (21021 bytes)

"It was a Taiwanese brochure about therapy for autistic children. I realized that improvement of autistic children was possible, but it needed special education. I thought that I could try to develop some special program like this."

With 10,000 yuan, Tian opened the Stars and Rain (Xingxingyu) kindergarten for autistic children on March 11, 1993. The first institution in China to use behavioral therapy to help autistic children, Tian chose the name by combining the movie Rainman with "children of the stars", the name given by Taiwanese to autistic children as they seem to inhabit a different planet.

It had six students --all from Beijing --and four teachers, all straight from training to teach ordinary children. Two left within two weeks.

Stars and Rain moved premises four times in the next four years, living a hand-to-mouth existence dependent on donations. Some measure of stability was only acquired in 1997, when a series of major donations allowed Tian to buy a house for the school in the far southeast of Beijing.

Several hundred children have already gone through the training programs, but tuition fees cannot come close to covering costs. Keeping Stars and Rain open remains a constant struggle.

No Surrender

Greetings cards hang in chains from the ceiling just above where Tian, dressed in a faded blue denim blouse and red-and-white striped shorts, sits on a second-hand chair.

The walls are dotted with framed photos of pupils and parents, donors, and visiting experts who have helped train the school's teachers.

On the far wall is a noticeboard covered with children's drawings: fish, houses, flowers, suns and moons. Downstairs, 21 parents are finishing the morning's work with their children.

Parents attend the school together with their children, which means living nearby for the duration of the three-month behavioral therapy program. Those that can afford it come from all over China. Some see it as their last hope.

"I have to tell them, 'You have to struggle.' Our children have the right. It is the schools that have no right to reject our kids. But we can't change the situation in China overnight.

30.jpg (10179 bytes)"In China if a family has such an unhealthy kid, the families feel ashamed. They feel their life is a failure. Their lives are too difficult."

The stigma of autism prevents this article naming parents and pupils.

"They need support, but there is none," says Tian. "We talk with the parents a lot. Autistic children are incurable, but they can be educated. Our children have the right to be educated. Parents often don't see it that way.?"

Two Tales

One woman came to the school last year from Shaanxi with her 8-year-old son. He could not speak and refused to eat. The boy's father had rejected him and threatened divorce if the child was not given away to peasants. After qigong, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, the kindergarten was the woman's last try. Otherwise, there would be no family.

"Therapy is not a miracle," says Tian. "In three months there is no 'cure'. But the mother was very brave. She understood the meaning of helping children like her son. She was very encouraged at the kindergarten."

The son began to talk a little, his behavioral problems grew less. Formerly, the mother had considered it impossible to raise her boy alone, but couldn't face giving him away.

"Recently she wrote to me. In her letter, she said ' I am divorced and live a difficult life with my son, but I feel it's a meaningful life.' "

A father brought his child from Jinzhou in Liaoning. Facing divorce after being laid off, he struggled to control his 9-year-old autistic daughter.

The wife's job supported the family, but they quarreled. Both felt the marriage had become meaningless and they were about to break up.

"After he arrived, he said, 'As a man, here I am with a group of women. My life is a total failure."

"Then he began to make great strides forward with his daughter, who could barely speak when they arrived. At the end of the three months, the wife arrived to collect them.

"When she arrived, her daughter said to her, 'Mum, I really missed you.' The wife burst into tears; she had no words."

The family is very poor. Last month, the school offered some money --from a German embassy-backed fund -- to bring them back to Beijing for reassessment.

"This time, the couple came with bright faces. The wife admires her husband now because he did a great job that not many could achieve, and he is proud of himself. Their daughter can now write over 500 Chinese characters; when she first came, she couldn't even dress herself. All the family's colleagues and neighbors say she has become a different person."

The girl still cannot attend regular school, and so the father remains the educator.
30-1.jpg (19826 bytes)
Tian Huiping
The New Teacher

Tian is interrupted again. Li Jing, 21, is carried past by four parents, in hysterics after being bitten above the right eye by a pupil.

Tian follows them into a small side room. The teacher is shaking all over, her lips quiver and she murmurs "Mama."

As soon as she regains composure, she says, "Don't let the father feel guilty about this. It doesn't matter." A concerned child is allowed to come and see her after 15 minutes.

Later, the father comes upstairs. He speaks quietly, mopping his face occasionally with a hand towel.

"I have found a certain kind of love and care for the children here I can't find anywhere else," he says. "The teacher was hurt today after I told her not to risk going near my child when he was biting himself, but she went anyway.

"I feel since I came here my mind has been cleaned. Back home I was very ill-tempered; now I have changed my thinking and feelings towards my son. When I go home, my wife will be surprised to see how I have changed."

Li Jing has been at the school one year. "I came here first because I found this place interesting and I felt there was a need for this kind of place. Gradually, I fell in love with it. I had no idea about autism before, and no idea it would be so hard. But I have no regrets. Every teacher here has a loving heart.

"When things are tough, I try to think of the parents' situation and my own lack of experience, then I don't get so angry. I think I will stay here for a long time. I really love this job."

The Old Teacher

31.jpg (12211 bytes)Bo Hongli, 25, has been with Tian since the very beginning, joining Stars and Rain straight from college.

Even in the desperately difficult early days, she says, she never thought of leaving.

"I am charmed by the kids. They are so distinctive. I got in touch with something completely different from what I had learned in school.

'There is always hope and light in this career as long as we try our best. Through our work and training, the kids can communicate with others. I feel our job is meaningful when the kids are accepted by a school, even if it is a special school.

"In a family with such a child, one person has to make sacrifices for the child. But Tian makes sacrifices for all the kids here. When she is facing her son, her emotions as a mother are no different from any of the other mothers'. We require parents to show a smile to their kids. But it's very hard for her to control her emotions when she is in front of her own son."

The Price

32.jpg (8951 bytes)Tian returns from checking on Li Jing, unflustered by the drama. Quiet descends on the building as the children and their parents step outside to eat lunch. A single fan hangs loosely from the ceiling. It putters softly, its motion vibrating the cord.

"I want to raise salaries to keep the qualified teachers because this is the only place that has them," she says. "To lose them [to some other line of work] would be an intolerable waste.

"I am told that I am very important to the other parents as support. I would like to give more responsibility to the teachers, but because my own son is autistic, they feel special trust and confidence in me.

"One mother said, 'Tian Laoshi, I wish you good health because it is very important to us. Without you, I would never have heard my son say, 'Mama'. '

"I have to ask myself --where is my support? I don't have any."

When Tian opened Stars and Rain in Beijing, her husband was in Chongqing. He saw no future in the school. The family financial burden became heavier.

"Basically, I had no salary in the first two years. Whenever I had money, I would pay my teachers. I was always exhausted from work and had less time with my son.

"My husband criticized me for being a bad mother. More and more conflicts came between us. When I first set up the school, all I thought was that my son should go to school, should be educated. I just couldn't accept the fact that he had to stay at home. I didn't think of the consequences."

To outsiders, the kindergarten may seem to get better and better.

To Tian, it gets more and more difficult. 32-1.jpg (11396 bytes)

"Maybe it's because I'm older. My son needs more and more time from me, but I have less and less time for him."

Tian laughs again.

"To live alone is very, very difficult. I need support, I need a hand to support me."

How to Donate

Principal Tian Huiping estimates the school has received almost 1 million RMB in donations from foreign patrons.

Families pay 1,100 RMB a month in tuition. With food and accommodation, the whole three months can cost any family up to 10,000 RMB.

Tian can be contacted on 6589-4950 or fax 6589-4951. She speaks English, German and Chinese.

Inside China:

By check:

Checks should be made payable, in Chinese if possible , to "Beijing Xingxingyu Education Institute."

北京星星雨教育研究所

By post, send checks directly to the school at the address below:

Ms. Tian Huiping

田惠?BR>
Beijing Xingxingyu Education Institute for Children with Autism, Dongxu Xincun 4 Qu No.57, Chaoyang District, 100024 Beijing.

北京星星雨教育研究所.朝阳区东旭新??7?00024

By bank transfer:

A/C No. 2610012247, jian 454

China Construction Bank, Yinghuaxijie Office.

Outside China:

Please remit the money in US dollars by T/T to:

Bank America International New York

Chips ABA No: CP0959 fedwire No: FW. 026009539

For credit to:

China Construction Bank, Beijing Branch.

Account No: 65503?0080. Chips UID: No: 355668

For further credit to account no: BJ082610012247, (Sub Branch) 142210 in China Construction Bank, Beijing.

In favor of Beijing Xingxingyu Education Institute for Children with Autism.

Things They Need:

3 air conditioners: 8,000 yuan.

3 dining tables and chairs: 3,300 yuan.

4 children's desks: 400 yuan.

4 gymnasium cushions: 2,000 yuan.

Kitchen utensils: 2,120 yuan.

Medical facilities.