Stigma fades for children with autismAlmost 10 years ago, residents of this otherwise quiet residential area in Ilwon-dong, southern Seoul, demonstrated and picketed a site planned for a school for children with autism, a mental disorder characterized by deficits in communication and social interaction.
Residents cut phone lines for the construction office and attached “No Parking” stickers on vehicles. Some people grabbed the school officials by the throat and even filed a lawsuit to end the construction.
Korean society has long been lukewarm toward people with disabilities, especially people with mental and emotional disorders. The public not only shunned people with disabilities but also disapproved of the presence of institutions, including schools for the disabled in their neighborhood.
Residents did not want autistic children around their own children and demanded its design be modified so that they could not see autistic children studying in classrooms. Subsequently, two parallel buildings of the school ― a classroom building and an office building ― were switched.
But eight years has passed since Miral School opened in 1997, and now it has become a place of education and worship for all in the community. The gym is used for church services on Sunday, and 220 residents and students volunteer every week there. With its avant-garde design, the school is a landmark in the residential area. The school received an architectural award in 1999 as one of the top 10 constructions in Korea.
“It is so meaningful to have the school here,” said a Miral School teacher, Seo Eun-seon. “There was no special education school in the middle of a residential area before.”
Seoul Jungae School for autistic children experienced the same prejudice. The school, located in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, also met fierce protests. The alumni of nearby Kyunggi High School and the residents also did not want a special education school in that area.
“Residents were afraid that property prices might fall,” said Kim Chun-ye, vice principal of Jungae School. “They were ignorant about autism and schools for autistic children, and that’s why they resisted the idea of having the school around here.”
However, the presence of the schools and a growing exchange within the communities have raised awareness about autism and brought a significant change in attitudes toward autistic children.
In addition, the box office success of “Running Boy,” a film about an autistic marathoner, has also raised awareness about autism, with more than 5 million watching and shedding tears during the film.
“The public stance toward children with disabilities in general has become softer,” Ms. Kim said. “In the past, the parents tended to hide their children, but now they bring them out.”
A typical day at Miral School starts with a morning gathering in a glass-and-steel gym. The atmosphere inside the gym is close to chaos ― children pound on the floor, shriek and run around as volunteers scrambled to restrain them.
The school has 207 students in grades preschool through high school. Though it is private, the school’s tuition is free for all students due to government subsidies.
The school has a substantially high number of boys compared to the number of girls, 174 to 33.
Autism is four times as prevalent among boys than girls, occurring in about one out of 10,000 people, said Miral Vice Principal Kim Yong-han.
The cause of autism is unknown, and the diversity of symptoms makes it difficult to evaluate, Mr. Kim said. All children are initially tested to create a year long individual educational plan to satisfy the child’s needs.
There are 10 students studying different subjects from Korean to mathematics as well as “everyday life subjects” in a classroom for sixth graders.
Many autistic children cannot articulate their thoughts or feelings. Some children can speak normally while others just repeat what they are told.
Unlike something solid that they can see or touch, it is difficult for them to understand abstracts term such as “tired” or “fun.”
All students are wearing a bracelet or necklace with a tag that indicates their name, phone number and address because there are children who run away or simply get lost. Only 10 percent of the school’s students can find their way to the school alone.
These runaway children are most problematic, Ms. Seo said.
The instructions given by teachers are more extensive than most people could imagine, as they need to teach not only school subjects but also basic life skills such as how to properly eat, put on clothes or use the bathroom.
“Finding one’s own shoes, putting them on and tying them, and taking off clothes without reversing the sleeves are difficult processes,” Ms. Seo said. “The goal of the education is not for them to finish a textbook but to teach them how to lead a normal life.”
Parents initially have high hopes when they bring their children to the school, but as the children grow older, they become more realistic.
“When the children are young, many parents believe, or want to believe, that if they receive treatment, they will become normal like other children,” Ms. Seo said.
Another important part of the education here is behavior therapy.
Autistic people are far more sensitive or sometimes insensitive, than normal people to different stimuli such as smell, taste, sound and light.
Ms. Seo said some children do not pay attention to any instructions at all but suddenly respond to the sound of unwrapping candy from far away. Kim Hyung-june, a therapeutic teacher, is teaching them how to accept and respond to different stimuli properly like “normal” people.
Mr. Kim also has to eliminate what is termed “maladjusted” behavior such as attacking others or injuring themselves.
Showing his middle and ring fingers, Mr. Kim said he just took off a plaster cast on these two fingers. He pointed out a child running on a treadmill in a fitness room after school. The child bent his fingers backward and broke them, he said. Mr. Kim said he has had many injuries before.
The boy had a problem with biting himself. The skin on his hand had different tones, and new flesh was growing. Mr. Kim said he “stopped biting his own hand after just one month of training.”
Both teachers say they gain a great sense of accomplishment when their students show what they have learned. One thing Ms. Seo learned after working at the school is that happiness comes from one’s own heart regardless of one’s children being autistic or not.
“I have seen a lot of mothers with autistic children who are actually happy,” regardless of the degrees of the symptoms their children have, Ms. Seo said.
As for the children, Mr. Kim said, “They eat or do whatever they want. They are quite happy.”
by Limb Jae-un