When we first signed up as volunteers in the “Life is Art” programme, Jebsen’s philanthropic initiative to improve children’s access to art, we were earnestly expecting to help and teach children. Little did we know that we would be the ones doing the learning.
In 2016, the “Life is Art” programme organised a series of hands-on musical experiences for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Here in Shanghai, we volunteered to support a group of children learning to play the xylophone. Over 12 Saturday afternoons, we were assigned to join the children in playing the xylophone, and also to talk to them frequently as a way to help them develop communication skills.
But when we met the children, we realised that our job was not as simple as it seemed.
There was a huge range of different behaviours. Some children were welcoming, but others rebuffed our attempts to engage. Our task of ‘talking to the children’ was, in fact, quite challenging. Another thing that surprised and humbled us was how quickly the children mastered the xylophone. We initially thought that their special situation would hinder them from acquiring new skills, but we were wrong. In spite of, or maybe because of ASD, these children were sharply focused on getting the technique right. Some were much more talented than us musically, so they were teaching us, instead of the other way around!
As the weeks went by, we began to see changes in the children. They stopped pushing us away. Some even initiated conversations with us. By the time we finished the lessons and performed together at the Jebsen Annual Dinner, there was a lot of fondness all around.
So, what did we learn? We learnt that miracles happen when we persist.
At first, the children did not behave the way we expected and it was hard to befriend them. But we learnt to put aside our prejudices and persisted in engaging them. In the end, we earned the friendship and acceptance of some of the most talented and wonderful children we have ever met.
During the lessons, we met the children’s parents and grandparents. We could only imagine the anxiety and weariness of seeing a loved offspring burdened with autism, But the only feeling we ever saw on those adults’ faces were love, patience, and positivity. Their courage and persistence are not only an asset to their children’s development, but also an inspiration to us.
Given a choice, we would all choose health. These children did have this choice, but they are choosing to embrace life and live it to the fullest. They taught us that when one door closes, another opens. We just need to persist and look for it.
We began this volunteering journey with an intention to give. But long after the programme is done, we are still thankful about how much we gained.