A couple of weeks ago I went to Beijing to provide a keynote lecture at an autism congress. I had made previous commitments for the time frame of the congress but a friend heavily insisted and asked my attendance as a personal favor. It was a curious conflict as I was scheduled to participate in an Autism Research Institute Think Tank, of which I am a member of their Scientific Advisory Board, and a congress in Russia which I have been forced to miss despite my best intentions to attend during the past 3 years.
The congress in Beijing was sponsored, in part, by the International Consortium of Autism Institutes (ICAI) of which I serve as president. The same was curiously entitled “Autism Rehabilitation”. The name itself would have drawn objections in the United States and Europe where Neurodiversity advocates argue against both research and treatment for autism. By way of contrast, in Russia and China, autism is regarded as a medical disorder and talking about treatment and/or rehabilitation is readily embraced by autistic individuals as well as the government.
This was a rather short trip of 5 days, 2 of which were travel related. In the remaining 3 days I participated in the congress, visited 2 universities, the laboratories of several friends, and a hospital. I also met with many government officials, all of whom coincided in saying that autism was a major initiative within their country. As a first step they are conducting one of the largest epidemiological studies in the world by looking at the prevalence of autism in their country. The government was also funding many of the initiatives that I was able to witness during my trip: the congress, a Magnetic Encephalograph Center, a Key Laboratory in Cognitive Neuroscience, and the Beijing Rehabilitation Hospital.
I was happy to see that at the Key Laboratory in Cognitive Neuroscience that they were using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for the treatment of autism, and that the protocol is the same we have developed in the United States. TMS is making many inroads in China, mostly propelled by their expertise in electronic engineering and the low wages for technical labor. I saw a variety of portable TMS devices, which in the US are devoted to the treatment of migraine. In China, portable TMS devices, were more powerful (higher magnetic field) and were being used for different mental disorders. I also saw a large variety of transcranial direct current stimulation (tdcs) devices that were being sold for less than $100. In the US, some of the commercially available tdcs devices sell for about $900 and more. It seemed like a remarkable low price, however, I can’t attest for the quality of the electrical components used in their manufacture or whether they had been reversed engineered and probably at odds with our patent laws.
More than anything else during my travel I was impressed by the capabilities of the Beijing Rehabilitation Hospital. The physical rehabilitation ward had some 80 technicians (not including students) and received 700 patients daily. The ward was opened all day and for most of the night, and there was a second shift of employees coming to work during the evening hours. The clinical wards and hospital visits were also opened Saturdays and Sundays. The hospital excelled in prosthetics and enjoyed a world-wide reputation as I saw many patients from different countries receiving services there.
The Beijng Rehabilitation Hospital also housed one of the biggest providers of autism related services that I have seen. There were specialized rooms for music therapy, play therapy, desensitization massages of various kinds, speech therapy, and acupuncture. Applied Behavioral Analysis is making inroads in China and 40 patients were receiving the same in one of the hospital’s clinics.
The large variety of services at the Beijing Rehabilitation Hospital was available to all people in China regardless of their geographic origin. Services were provided for free but you could also arrange for them and pay directly. In this regard, if somebody thought that their child could benefit from some services that had not been recommended by their physician (e.g., music therapy), they could pay for it themselves.
One of the places we visited was the China Autism Rehabilitation Research Center (see the picture of the brass plaque above). In China, autism is regarded as a medical condition, one that merits research. This approach would lead to condemnation by the Neurodiversity community within the United StatesIt appears that most of the socialization in China happens over sumptuous meals. Nothing that we ate was repeated.During my stay in China, I had the opportunity to share a meal and enjoy a discussion with dozens of graduate students.
The audience at one of my lectures was packed primarily with parents and providers. I was surprised by the wide-range of questions following each lecture.
Even the small universities in Beijing look gigantic. This is the Beijing Language and Culture University which houses a modern MEG Center.
The introduction to the congress publicized the sponsoring organizations, one of which ICAI, I serve as the president.
Some of the presenters at one of the meetings. I stand in the middle and my good friend Tato Sokhadze on my left.