Published: 16:59, May 29, 2024
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A different child of the stars
By Liu Kun in Wuhan and Li Xinran

Zhu Yuchen, diagnosed with autism at a young age, finds expression and connection through painting and music.

The paintings of Zhu Yuchen, a 24-year-old with autism, draw inspiration from his daily life. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

At the age of three, Zhu Yuchen, now 24, began displaying symptoms of autism, including intellectual challenges and a lack of speech.

For his parents, the most difficult period was when Zhu received his initial diagnosis, leaving them bewildered and unsure of how to proceed.

"We were constantly shuttling between the hospital and home, dedicating time to his care and trying to figure out the best way to support him," said Zhu's father, Zhu Dunfei.

One of my happiest memories was performing on a beautiful stage. It was unforgettable, and we were thrilled to perform together.

Zhu Yuchen, 24, an artist with autism

While most people have a wide range of interests and are constantly exploring new ones, autistic individuals often need a stroke of luck to discover their passion, which tends to be narrow and fixed.

However, when they do discover something they are passionate about, they can become deeply engrossed in it, according to Cheng Zhenyu, founder of Lezaixingkong, a public welfare center teaching music to individuals with autism. The center is located in Wuhan, the capital city of Central China's Hubei province.

"Like anyone else, with time and effort, they can excel in that area," said Cheng.

For Zhu, that area is painting.

"He started repetitively drawing circles at the age of five. At first, we didn't think much of it. By the time he turned 12, we decided to send him to drawing classes," said Zhu Dunfei.

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Zhu finds inspiration in his daily life. He has painted his parents, natural landscapes, and his music band at the Lezaixingkong center. "The one I'm most satisfied with is the train statue near home because I often go there to play," Zhu said.

For Zhu's parents, the most fulfilling moments come when Zhu completes a painting. It now typically takes him about four hours to finish one piece, and last year, he had his first solo exhibition.

"There were about a dozen of my paintings at the exhibition. I hope to hold another one in the future," said Zhu.

In April, Zhu created five paintings of cats for the "Painters From the Stars" event to commemorate World Autism Awareness Day on April 2. The event was organized by Jiemao, a platform dedicated to improving the living conditions of stray cats.

"Cats are cute; I like them very much," said Zhu.

In the annotations for his paintings, he mentioned that while cats don't smile outwardly, they might be happy on the inside, smiling in their own world.

Cheng has known Zhu for over seven years and has witnessed significant progress in his development despite the challenges of autism.

"At first, he struggled to answer my questions logically. However, now, even though his responses may be brief and simple, they are reasonable. For example, when asked if he is happy, he confidently replies, 'Yes, I am happy.' This consistency in his responses sets him apart from others who may not respond to questions at all," Cheng explained.

With a background in music, Cheng founded the Lezaixingkong center to support autistic children and adults.

He believes that art is a powerful tool for individuals with autism to express themselves and connect with the world.

"Art is a universal language for humans. It allows autistic individuals to connect with others in a unique way. I have observed that since they started engaging with music, they tend to laugh more and become calmer," Cheng noted.

According to Zhu's parents, he has been learning to play the guitar for about seven years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he used to attend band practice at the center every week.

"One of my happiest memories was performing on a beautiful stage. It was unforgettable, and we were thrilled to perform together," Zhu said.

Zhu now leads the band as the singer, although Cheng mentioned that he can only sing at his own pace.

"Each band member exhibits different types and levels of symptoms, making it challenging for them to communicate with each other. I must encourage them to practice diligently to master their parts so they can keep up with Zhu's tempo during rehearsals," Cheng said.

According to Cheng, children with autism usually begin showing symptoms around the age of two or three, often due to genetic factors. Those with acquired autism may exhibit signs at five or six years old. They make up about 2 percent of the population, with a male-to-female ratio of approximately 4:1.

He explained that the common stereotype about autistic individuals being geniuses likely stems from the portrayal of autistic characters in movies and novels, who often have savant syndrome — a rare condition within the autism spectrum that only affects 0.5 to 10 percent of the autistic community.

In reality, most autistic individuals have intelligence levels similar to that of a six-year-old, according to Cheng, though it varies from person to person.

"One young man who comes to our center can take the subway here by himself, while Zhu needs to be dropped off by his parents. Some are sensitive and easily irritated by noises, while others are soothed by music. I've also met autistic individuals who would eat all the rice but leave the side dishes in a lunchbox," Cheng said.

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In China, autistic children are often referred to as "children of the stars" because, although they may be physically close to us, their minds seem distant, as if they are on another planet. Zhu relies heavily on his parents compared to many other autistic individuals, even though their communication lacks emotional exchanges.

"He communicates his basic needs to his parents, such as thirst, hunger, or fatigue," Cheng explained. "This is quite remarkable, as many of them struggle to express such needs or act on their desires independently."

Cheng pointed out that autistic individuals pose no threat to society. While many may not be able to hold traditional jobs, they typically exhibit gentle and easygoing dispositions.

"Autism is a spectrum of characteristics, not a disease. They are people living on this planet. Just like everyone else, they are unique individuals," he said.

Contact the writers at lixinran@i21st.cn