Making a Difference

On a Wednesday afternoon, while pushing the boy on a swing, Wei Shi wanted nothing more than to make him smile.

“Only once he made eye contact with me, and I found his eyes are so beautiful,” Shi said of the boy. “Maybe, I didn’t make an impact on him or understand his world; maybe he wouldn’t even remember me. But, when I saw his eyes, I felt that he was so lonely, and I wasn’t willing to leave him alone.”

So Shi entertained the boy with toys and conversation until his parents returned two hours later from a session on Applied Behavior Analysis. Shi is one of 18 SAF students and staff who volunteered to care for children with autism at an event hosted in August on the campus of Beijing Stars and Rain, China’s first non-governmental educational organization dedicated to serving children with autism.

Co-organized by SAF China, the event brought together educators, parents and volunteers for a day of learning designed to equip caregivers and the community with tools to better support autistic children to reach their full potential.

“We initiated this event for three reasons,” says Sean Qin, head of SAF China's media department. “One, to contribute to society. Two, to enhance the community engagement of SAF. Three, to raise awareness for autism through a series of actions.”

Autism is "a condition present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts,” as defined by Oxford University Press. The prevalence of autism spectrum conditions is 1 percent in developed countries, but little data are available from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to a scholarly article published in the peer-reviewed journal, Molecular Autism.

Recently, in response to such news, the government in China has increased funding for autism research. Organizations such as Beijing Stars and Rain are doing their part to offer quality support services, but experts agree the country as a whole has more work to do when it comes to improving diagnosis, care and awareness. That’s where community involvement, like that of The Study Abroad Foundation, can help make a difference.

Following the event, Qin launched a campaign on Sina Weibo, a popular blog in China, in which he has asked SAF students to post photos of their host-university adventures and tag their friends. He will then collect and share the images with the children.

"Because these children face difficulties communicating with society, we hope we could bring them the beautiful scenery of this world through photos,” Qin says. “We think this will let more people understand autism and the families’ lives better.”

For Shi, at least, that’s exactly what this initiative has done. “To be honest,” he said, “I couldn't imagine or understand their lives until this.”

Current students event Informational