GUANGDONG, South China — Zhuojun first became curious about sex at age 21. Her school — an institution for young people with special needs in the southern city of Guangzhou — had arranged a sex education class for the students, and the lesson left her with all kinds of questions.
Soon after, she saw two classmates kissing in the stairwell. She asked her teacher what they were doing. The teacher said they were “falling in love.” Zhuojun wanted to know whether there was a designated age for that, and the teacher replied, “20.”
“Ever since, she’s been telling people that she’s ready to fall in love,” says Zhuojun’s mother, Guo Fengmei, who requested her daughter’s full name not be used for privacy reasons.
Zhuojun is one of many young Chinese with autism spectrum disorder trying to navigate the world of romance — a challenge made all the more daunting by the lack of support services available for autistic adults in China.
There are more than 10 million people living with autism in China, with 200,000 new diagnoses every year, according to a 2017 report. Around 8 million of them are adolescents and adults.
Though adults with autism often have difficulties communicating with others, the majority share the same desire to socialize and form intimate relationships as neurotypical peers. Many, however, struggle to find long-term companionship. International studies suggest over 85% of adults with autism are single.
In China, life for people with autism can be even more complicated, due to the nation’s comparatively smaller social safety net. While multiple programs exist to support children with autism — especially in areas such as inclusive education — services for adults are often lacking, experts tell Sixth Tone.
“The services (for autistic people) in adolescence, adulthood, and retirement age are far from enough in China,” says Chen Jingjie, a director at Inclusion China Parents Network, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization that works for people with intellectual and developmental disorders.
Families are largely left to care for adults with autism by themselves, and they are often reluctant to support their autistic relatives’ love lives — fearing the extra burden of care a romantic relationship might bring.
Lu Ying, vice president of Yang Ai, a Guangzhou-based nonprofit for families of special needs children, estimates that more than 80% of the organization’s 2,000 registered parents wouldn’t even consider allowing their children to get married. In the rare cases when people with autism do tie the knot in China, the match tends to be arranged by a wealthy family — and almost always pairs the autistic adult with a neurotypical person, she adds.
“Most of these parents are rich,” says Lu. “They think their children feel lonely, or they’ve shown a strong sexual desire and really need a partner.”
Yet young people with autism studying together at institutions such as the Guangzhou Children’s Palace — a popular hub for extracurricular activities — are often attracted to one another. When this happens, most parents’ instinct is to discourage a relationship, according to Lu.
“When they spend so much time together, they’ll develop feelings for each other,” says Lu. “But then parents force them to separate or only let them play together for a few hours during the daytime. Marriage is absolutely out of the question.”
Chen — a financial manager from Guangzhou whose 22-year-old son, Xianzai, has a moderate form of autism — tells Sixth Tone she is completely opposed to her son dating another person with autism.
“It’s already so tiring taking care of one autistic child — how am I supposed to take care of a couple?” says Chen, who has no relation to Chen Jingjie and declined to give both her and her son’s full names for privacy reasons.
Xianzai has shown an interest in marriage and childbirth since he attended an etiquette class at Guangzhou Children’s Palace when he was 17. His mother, however, worries about him possibly passing on his autism to future children. There is no conclusive proof that autism has a genetic cause, but researchers have found patterns toward the disorder in certain families.
“If getting married would cause more trouble, why do it?” says Chen.
Guo, the mother of Zhuojun, is one of the minority of parents who wants her child to start a family. She hopes Zhuojun can have a child to take care of her after the 59-year-old is gone, though she worries a partner might abuse or take advantage of her daughter.
“I asked her if she wanted to give birth abroad via artificial insemination, but she refused right away,” says Guo. “So, I stopped asking and will try again later, otherwise she’ll be mad.”
When asked whether she wants to get married and have children, Zhuojun — who is now 26 — says “no” without hesitation. She has, however, become infatuated with one of the teachers at Guangzhou Children’s Palace, where she has attended special education classes since 2014.
“She fell in love with Mr. Cui, the painting teacher, at first sight,” says Guo. “She didn’t even know what painting was, but she insisted that she sign up because she thought Mr. Cui was so handsome.”
Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, Zhuojun immerses herself in the painting classes. When she’s home, she spends most of her time painting dogs — her favorite animal. She will often paint until her parents order her to go to bed. “She wants to get better to impress Mr. Cui,” says Guo.
Mr. Cui often makes time for Zhuojun outside of class. He takes her shopping and to the mall — accompanied by Guo and his girlfriend.
“We tell her that Mr. Cui has a girlfriend, and that’s why she can’t have him,” says Guo. “She can see him as her brother and best friend, but she can’t be his girlfriend.”
Zhuojun, however, struggles to understand the situation, and she often tells others that she’s Mr. Cui’s “first girlfriend.” When she has dinner with Mr. Cui and his partner, she deliberately sits in between the couple.
Several parents of adult children with autism tell Sixth Tone they feel uncertain how to handle their offspring’s romantic lives. Zhuojun has learned to turn down the advances of men she doesn’t find attractive, says Guo. But when she likes someone, she often throws herself at them, hugging them and asking to connect on messaging app WeChat.
“I stop her when I see it and constantly remind her that it’s dangerous, and she must tell me or her dad who she’s met,” says Guo.
A 2015 study conducted in the United States found that the most common concerns among adults with autism were courtship difficulties and sensory dysregulation during sex. But research on the sexual experiences of those with autism is scarce, even more so in China.
A few parents at Yang Ai have organized a program to help their children learn about dating by practicing with volunteers. The pairs go out for dinner and to the movies together. Guo, however, is against the initiative.
“The volunteers know it’s fake, but the autistic children think it’s real,” says Guo. “Once they really fall for it, it’s hard to get them out, and it’s devastating for them. There’s a boy in our circle who’s now always saying he had a girlfriend but she dumped him.”
Since graduating from vocational school three years ago, Xianzai has been working at a coffee chain outlet in Guangzhou, cleaning tables and mopping the floor. He is often attracted to female customers and colleagues. When he sees someone he likes, he will look straight at them, touch their hair or shoulders, or try to kiss them, according to Chen.
His mother has received complaints about her son’s inappropriate behavior on several occasions — especially during Xianzai’s first few weeks at the café — and she worries about the consequences if he continues such actions.
“Although his mind is like a child, he’s big and tall and doesn’t look like he’s autistic sometimes,” says Chen.
To solve the problem, Chen turned to a local sex education nonprofit named the Nurturing Relationship Education Support Center for advice. She was inspired to ask Xianzai’s manager to write up three fake official warning letters.
“He cares about this job a lot and is afraid of being fired, so he calmed down after that,” says Chen. She keeps in close contact with staff at the café to check on her son’s behavior.
Xianzai has asked out almost all his female co-workers, but Chen doesn’t think he is capable of maintaining a long-term relationship. She also believes he doesn’t really want to get married.
“He can read, but it’s difficult for him to read between the lines,” says Chen. “And he doesn’t know how to say beautiful words to make girls happy.”
Guo is still undecided about whether to seek a match for Zhuojun. Several people have made inquiries. In December, a relative wanted to set up Zhuojun with a 23-year-old autistic man who lives in Hong Kong, but she declined.
“His family owns a big business, but I can’t take the risk of Zhuojun having an autistic child,” says Guo.
According to Guo, one of her friends recently secured a neurotypical wife for her 30-year-old autistic son after agreeing to pay the young woman 10,000 yuan ($1,450) per month and buy the couple a large house.
“She does housework and listens to him,” says Guo. “He doesn’t know how to have sex, so his father is teaching him how to do it, hoping they’ll have a healthy grandchild soon.”
Chen, for her part, simply hopes that Xianzai can do well at work and live a happy life. She worries about what might happen if her son endures a breakup, which she believes might cause him anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders.
“If he’s lucky enough to find a ‘normal’ girl who can accept him, I’ll do my best to help them spiritually and financially,” says Chen. “But as long as he has something he enjoys doing and I have enough money to support him, I don’t think being single is a bad thing.”
This article was published on Sixth Tone.