Guangzhou probes autistic boy's death

Death of three-year-old, who was treated at rehab centre, puts spotlight on dubious cures

Jia Jia's father (left) sitting under a banner that reads "I want my son back" outside the rehabilitation centre in Guangdong. The little boy (above) was autistic.
Jia Jia's father (above) sitting under a banner that reads "I want my son back" outside the rehabilitation centre in Guangdong.PHOTO: WEIBO
Jia Jia's father (left) sitting under a banner that reads "I want my son back" outside the rehabilitation centre in Guangdong. The little boy (above) was autistic.
The little boy (above) was autistic.PHOTO: WEIBO

BEIJING • The Guangzhou authorities have launched a probe into the death of a three-year-old autistic boy who died while receiving treatment at a private rehabilitation centre in the southern Chinese city.

Jia Jia's death on April 27 came to light after a social media post went viral online.

The boy's mother, Ms Zhang Wei, said that on the day he died, he had been made to walk long distances in heavy winter clothes.

The grieving mother said she decided to go public with her loss in the hope that others would not make the same choices she did.

Autism affects five million to nine million children in China.

In the lengthy post shared over WeChat, Ms Zhang said her son was forced to walk 10km in the morning and a further 9km in the afternoon as part of the treatment for autism.

Such forms of military-like training are the cornerstone of treatment at the Tiandao Zhengqi rehabilitation centre in Guangdong province, said the Shanghaiist website. It is operated by self-taught practitioner Xia Dejun who believes autism is a chronic disease associated with spoilt, rich, lazy children. He claims his treatment is based on theories of traditional Chinese medicine.

Ms Zhang said when she saw Jia Jia's body in the morgue, she could barely recognise him. "He was darker, thinner, with scratches all over his body," she told reporters. "He looked like a porcelain doll."

At the centre, which was founded in 2013, the young children are not allowed to have snacks. Dinner is a frugal meal, including small quantities of fruit, and children are told to drink a lot of water, reported South China Morning Post.

An autopsy report released on Wednesday shows no unnatural cause of death. The boy died of bleeding from the lungs and an inflammation of the brain, reported the Hong Kong-based newspaper.

Ms Zhang said her son was running a high fever on the night of April 27, and his heart was beating unnaturally fast. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died.

"I've been going through a lot of pain," she told the news website Sixth Tone. "So much that I almost can't feel any more."

The family from Dandong in north-eastern China's Liaoning province paid more than 30,000 yuan (S$6,300) for the three- month treatment involving physical exercise and diet to help children "recover" from autism.

Ms Zhang first came into contact with Mr Xia online via his book Note On Rehabilitation For Children With Autism, which describes cases of children overcoming autism after undergoing his treatment.

Jia Jia's death again highlights the prevalence of dubious medical cures in China, according to Sixth Tone. Recently, a cancer patient, college student Wei Zexi, died after undergoing a controversial treatment he found via search engine Baidu, sparking an outcry in the country.

When contacted by Sixth Tone, Mr Xia said: "The child died at a hospital from an illness. It has nothing to do with my rehab centre."

He defended the methods used at his centre, saying: "Ask other parents. They will say my training works."

The remaining 10 children at the centre have since returned home.

Professor Wang Yi, vice-president of the Children's Hospital of Fudan University, said the number of institutions in China that deal with autism is "not sufficient" to cope with the problem.

"We have found some autistic children strapped to chairs because parents cannot control them," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'Guangzhou probes autistic boy's death'. Subscribe