The number of expatriate families with special needs in Beijing are rising. "We are increasingly seeing more kids with complicated medical problems, developmental problems or behavioral problems," says Dr. Alan Mease, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU). "Special needs" can be classified as either medical, encompassing a range of conditions such as leukemia, diabetes and severe asthma; or as developmental, which includes delayed development, autism, and cerebral palsy. Caring for a special needs child requires families to have access to a range of resources and support networks. Long-term or residential care is hard to come by, but may be necessary in some cases. Resources for families in Beijing are limited, but there is a small community dedicated to assisting those who need help. The experienced Pediatric and Psychology Department at BJU as well as The Care for Children School are two such resources, and are good places for parents to begin their search for information.
Since Mease arrived in Beijing in 2001, things have improved considerably, but he admits, "It is not where it needs to be." And while there are resources for milder cases, the head of BJU’s Psychological Health Center, psychologist Dr. Rob Blinn says, "When you get to more severe special needs, things like autism, mental retardation and severe speech and language deficit, there are fewer resources." The most common learning disabilities he has seen are problems with math, written expression, dyslexia and ADHD. Availability of specialists varies year-to-year due to the flow of incoming and outgoing expats, so parents should do their homework and find out who is available and in which specialties.
BJU is currently developing a pediatric specialty clinic, which will have pediatric psychology, psychiatry, orthopedics, surgery, and cardiology with possibilities of other specialties. Mease explains, "We’re beginning building a more comprehensive and multidisciplinary team. One doctor is not enough. I can be a good doctor, but I can’t take care of an autistic kid. Special needs are complicated and they require a multidisciplinary approach."
Pediatricians at BJU capitalize on their contacts within the community to assist with more complicated cases, and while they are not on staff, BJU can recommend reliable practitioners in the areas of speech, occupational and physical therapy. Also, the Family Services Clinic at Care for Children has speech therapists and physical therapists available for consultation.
Though they don’t yet have the facilities and resources to treat the gamut of special needs disabilities, BJU does have behavioral therapists, a psychiatrist and psychologists suitable for children, as well as an adult physical therapist.
For children who are currently taking prescriptive medication, it is worth checking with your hospital or pharmacy to see if they stock the drug. It’s important to note that most new or usual drugs are not approved by Chinese law and may not be available in China. Therefore, it is not uncommon for families to bring a year’s supply of prescribed medication from their home country.
If your current school lacks support for your child, parents may consider The Care for Children School (CfC), located at The Centre, near Beijing Riviera in Shunyi. Other centers with special education support are The Learning Center, Side by Side, and Beijing Stars and Rain, which specializes in autism. However, CfC is the only Special Needs Education School in Beijing for expatriate children. CfC is a non-profit organization, with all profits going directly to The Care for Children Foster Care, a charity devoted to improving the lives of children in China.
Students at the school have a variety of special needs including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, developmental delays and autism, with disabilities ranging from mild to profound. The school maintains a low student-teacher ratio with three foreign Lead Teachers, who are experienced and qualified Special Education Needs (SEN) Teachers and five teaching assistants who are all bilingual, speaking both English and Chinese. CfC also has a local family liaison to help with any cultural and language issues. As well as being experienced, teachers at CfC truly care about the children in their care. "When you see the level of enthusiasm and warmth from the staff, as a parent, that’s what you’re looking for," says Principal Dennis McKibben.
Classes at CfC are divided into four age-appropriate groups, including an Early Intervention class (ages 2-5) for children suspected of needing help, Whizz Kids for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities, Stepping Stones (ages 7-9) for children in need of intensive academic support and the Sunshine Class for older children (ages 13 and up).
The curriculum is based on the English National Curriculum (ENC) and classes are taught as close to grade-level as possible, to provide a similar academic environment to a mainstream school. Additional courses geared toward special needs include adaptive physical education (PE), cooking classes and art sessions that incorporate art therapy. The school also offers a socialization group for children in need of social development, as well as a Friday night youth group – a healthy social outlet for teens.
English is the primary language used, but the staff is international. British-Mexican SEN Teacher Isela Shipton speaks nine languages and currently provides private Spanish sessions for one of the students. Shipton remarks, "It’s been fantastic to be able to help these kids, because they are so smart. There is so much potential there, but you need to know how to address it so they progress."
When American Lori Carigon moved to Beijing last year with her 16-year-old daughter, finding the right school was her number one concern. Her daughter has severe apraxia, among other speech and language difficulties, but Carigon says she adjusted quite quickly to life at CfC. "If we didn’t have this option, I don’t know if we could stay here; or it would be harder. She’s very close to her friends and the staff here," says Carigon.
The Centre is also home to the Family Services Clinic. The Western-certified staff is comprised of two speech therapists, a physical therapist, a psychologist, a social worker, and two behavioral support consultants. At no extra cost, therapists visit classrooms on a regular basis, working in coordination with the teachers. For extra therapy sessions, there is a discounted rate for students and their families. Families (including adults) whose children do not attend school at CfC are welcome to seek therapy at the clinic.
Support for Parents
Information sessions are offered each month at CfC’s Family Services Clinic. Presented in either English or Chinese by an expert in the field, this free workshop is open to families, parents, and teachers. Previous topics include dyslexia and challenging behaviors, autism and speech, and language development. Food and wine is kindly provided by the restaurant Pinotage.
Therapy for parents of students at CfC is an additional cost, but McKibben replies, "My door and the door to teachers is always open. I’m more than happy to talk and correspond with [other parents]. I know it’s not easy having a child with a disability, realizing that there is limited support for them, and everything that goes with moving your family overseas in general." In the future, CfC hopes to offer more support groups for parents, including a morning program for mothers and toddlers.
For parents, Mease delivers a straightforward bottom line: "You have to accept that life is going to be more complicated here. And if you can’t deal with that, then you better go home. Your decision to come here should require some serious thought," he says. However, medical and educational support is available for most mild cases and the situation is constantly changing, hopefully in a direction that provides more resources for the families who need them.
Beijing United Family Hospital 北京和睦家医院
Contact Pediatrician Dr. Alan Mease at email@example.com.
Care for Children
The Centre, 1 Xiangjiang Beilu, opposite Beijing Riviera, Jingshun Lu, Shunyi District (8470 2735, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.careforchildren.com 顺义区京顺路香江北路1号香江花园
The Learning Center
Offers occupational therapy, specialized learning support, and speech therapy.
2108 Gahood Villa, Houshayu, Xibaixinzhuang, Shunyi District (8046 3886, email@example.com) www.thelearningcenter.cn
Side by Side
Provides specialized learning support, music therapy, speech therapy and other special needs support.
3336 Capital Paradise, Houshayu, Shunyi District (8046 3858, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.sidebysidebeijing.com
Beijing Stars and Rain 北京星星雨教育研究所
Has an autism support group, school services, parent education and workshops for families with autistic children. Services in English and Chinese. (8537 3236, email@example.com)
Photos by Kara Chin.