A balancing act allows talented autistic boy ‘to settle down’

By Trong Nghia   November 15, 2018 | 03:00 am PT
At seven, an autistic boy screamed and broke things. Two years later, he broke a national juggling record.

Five years ago, three-year-old Nguyen Dinh Khanh Hung would sit on the porch of his shabby house in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District, watching the road with dull eyes. Then, he would spend hours in front of the television set.

Khanh Hung could stand on three cylindrical pipes within one month while others usually take six months. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia

Khanh Hung was able to stand on three cylindrical pipes in just one month, while his peers typically took six months. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia

But his family was not unduly worried. Even when Hung could only speak a single word, "xe" (car) when he was three years old, they believed that kindergarten would spur him to talk more.

However, just a few days into kindergarten, his mother, Hoang Thi Nam, 35, was told he stabbed classmates with pencils, only uttered a single word and refused to take any food except milk.

Nguyen Dinh Quan, 37, Hung’s father, continued to be flippant about his wife’s anxieties, treating them as nonsense. He refused to take the child to the doctor.

"I secretly took my son to the Vietnam National Children’s Hospital, and he was diagnosed with autism. I regret spoiling my son and allowing him to eat whatever he wanted and watch TV all day," Nam said.

Though her family was not well off, Nam took her son to a special class for autistic kids. However, his condition did not improve much over the next few years. Even at six, he could only communicate by grinding his teeth, breaking things and getting mad at his parents and grandparents.

Hung must learn to open his mouth to practice pronunciation. Photo by Trong Nghia/VnExpress

Hung had to be trained to open his mouth to practice pronunciation. Photo by Trong Nghia/VnExpress

When he was seven, Nam took him to the Center for Austism Education run by Dr Phan Quoc Viet in Chuyen My Commune, Phu Xuyen District, Hanoi.

No solid food for seven years

Here, in a new program, students and teachers practiced acrobatic exercises together. To enable intense focus on developing their different skills, the students had to stay away from family and technology.

Dr Viet recalled: "On his first day at school, the teachers were surprised to find that Hung had never eaten rice, vegetables or meat since birth. When he was fed, he spit out the food and hit the teachers. Generally, he communicated by screaming and breaking things."

After five days of eating rice mixed with milk, Hung learned to eat rice for the first time.

Because he was unable to speak, his mouth had become very stiff and could not open it wide. It took the teachers two months to fix this problem so that Hung could practice pronunciation with basic lessons.

For example, in the "Greetings" lesson, he had to speak out loud simple words like "excellent" and "you are the best" to anyone passing by. He also had to read slogans and practice longer sample sentences.

Hung made rapid progress. Just four months later, he could sing karaoke with others.

Concentration exercises

In order to improve his concentration, Hung was made to practice keeping two water bottles on his head.Then, other acrobatic exercises were introduced, including juggling, balancing and riding a single-wheel bicycle.

Something clicked for Hung, now. 

"Surprisingly, while it usually takes up to six months for other students to balance themselves on three cylindrical pipes (one placed horizontally in the middle, making it very difficult for everyone except trained artistes), it took Hung only one month," said coach Pham Thi Trang.

"As he practices very hard, he got injured often and had to take a week-long break once. When he lost focus, he cried and hid himself. But now, thanks to his coaches’ encouragement, Hung is no longer afraid of performing difficult stunts."

Feeding himself is a major life change for the eight-year-old boy. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia

Feeding himself was a major life change for eight-year-old Hung, who is autistic. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia

In May last year, three months after he joined the center, Hung was signed up for the Guiness Vietnam Contest by his teachers. He was successful in "Standing on three cylindrical pipes with a bottle on the head" for 15 minutes, becoming the youngest person to perform this act (seven years).

Hung could not speak clearly until April this year. Now he can tell his story clearly: "In the beginning I was scared of being laughed at if I fell. When I saw my friends stand on the pipes, I was really excited and tried to copy them."

Explaining his amazing progress, Phan Quoc Viet said: "Autism is quite common, and Hung is one of 40 percent of autistic children possessing an outstanding intellect.

"What matters is that the teacher must identify and develop his strength. At first, Hung could neither speak nor read, but he showed excellent motor skills. Seeing his coach standing and juggling on a pipe, he was determined to learn the trick and succeeded after one month of focusing."

After he was recognized by Guiness Vietnam, Dr Viet and his assistants took him to rural schools and mountainous areas like Thai Nguyen and Bac Giang to motivate students there.

Meanwhile, Hung’s parents separated, and they rarely meet him. In tears, he said: "I have many friends who wheedle their parents at home, but I no longer have a home."

In stead of spending hours in front of TV, Khanh Hung now gets up at 5 a.m. to exercise with friends and teachers. He spends 12 hours practicing on his own.

In a soft voice, he said: "I dream of setting up a production company that can videotape for all chilren in the world. I believe I can do it."

Cao Thu Hang, an autism teacher, said: "In my opinion, autistic children require a lot of nurturing, teaching and guiding. With early intervention, kids with mild autism can make good progress and blend into the community. There may be only 1 or 2 autistic kids that can be a record breaker like Khanh Hung.

"So other parents should not have an illusion and should care for their children appropriately and scientifically."

Howard Gardner, a Harvard University psychologist and neuroscientist, presented a theory on Multiple Intelligences listing eight types of intelligences (linguistic, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-reasoning...). He said each person has at least 2 types of intelligence.

Dr Viet thinks Hung possesses linguistic and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences.

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