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Aiai founder Chieko Awata

by Judit Kawaguchi

Chieko Awata, 68, is the founder of Aiai, a nonprofit organization that provides art education to autistic children and adults. For the past 46 years she has been teaching drawing, painting and social skills to children as young as 2 years old. Some of her students have remained with her for as long as 40 years. Awata is a graduate of the Aichi University of Education and since her senior year, her life’s work has been to bring happiness and independence into the lives of autistic people and their families. It has been an exhausting challenge — although busy teaching, she also spends countless hours visiting companies in order to secure full-time designer positions for her talented artists. Awata’s efforts are paying off and some of her students have the type of financial independence most artists can only dream about. Awata’s own dream is still in the making: To build an atelier and museum in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, dedicated to autistic artists.

Once you know how tough a job is, you respect it a lot more. I hold art classes for parents so they can understand how difficult drawing is. Once they experience the creative process, they develop more respect for their children.

I never met a child I didn’t love immediately. I’m a workaholic because I want to be with my students all the time. Regardless of their age, they maintain the wonder and curiosity of children and every day is a new adventure for them and me. Their talent for art is incredible, too!

Giving people money for just being alive is like signing death certificates — theirs and ours. The pension system should be abolished. There are no benefits to getting paid just because one is breathing. Without something to do, people age rapidly and become a burden on society. My father was 100 and still hard at work. “Still too young to rest or die,” he used to say.

Children and autistic people are the greatest artists. They don’t paint to get recognition or money, but because they feel like doing it. Since they don’t try to impress the audience, the viewers are touched by their art.

Thanks to love, patience and consistency anyone can improve. I start with greetings. At first it’s difficult to get a hello, but I don’t give up quickly. Five years is the minimum time in which to see major changes in confidence, but it comes eventually.

As long as Japanese tax laws stay the way they are it will be impossible to get donations. In other countries, corporations and individuals are encouraged to contribute to society through tax-free donations. Not in Japan, though. Our tax laws are more punishing than nurturing: The more one works, the higher the taxes are, until it seems pointless to even work. On top of that, donations don’t get tax breaks.

People in the minority need major help. The medical profession focuses on diseases that anyone can get at almost any time in life, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. The logic is correct as these diseases affect millions of people so they are important to solve. They also happen to be the most profitable for both doctors and pharmaceutical companies. For these reasons, in Japan, very few doctors research autism, so we have difficulty getting professional support.

In a crazy system, normal people look insane. Japan is struggling with a declining birth rate, yet the number of children deemed disabled is not decreasing. There are about 6 million disabled individuals among Japan’s 127 million people. I think the main reason is that many parents and teachers prefer to take care of themselves, not their children. Therefore, kids with the slightest unique behavioral traits are labeled “challenged” and many are put into government homes. The system makes it easy to get rid of children: Call a bureaucrat from the city office, complain that the child is problematic, and if the officer agrees after a few minutes of observation, the child is given a disability card. Doctors should make such life-altering decisions, but in Japan the paper-pushers do.

Forgetting is one of the most wonderful abilities. My little sister died of polio when I was in fourth grade. I felt so guilty to be alive, but our mom said: “You’re a wonderful child. It’s OK to forget your sister. Get on with your life.” This was a revelation for me and helped me to move on after our loss.

Everyone is handicapped in some way, yet only certain challenges are considered disabilities. I’m terrible at numbers, yet nobody calls me challenged and I was never asked to leave math class. Yet dyslexic children, for example, are often put into special schools. The rules for deciding who is handicapped are arbitrary and are based mostly on who is a distraction to the teacher or parents. Being troublesome therefore validates the disability label.

Our five senses help us remember faster than our mind. Our students put seeds in the garden, water the soil, watch the plants grow and blossom into flowers. We draw what we see. This whole process is not just explained but felt — mud gets on the fingers, leaves are touched, and with each encounter the children also grow a bit.

Housewives can’t raise decent adults. Women who have not held jobs for a long time have little social skills and life experience. They’re like spoiled kids. When they stir the miso soup, they lick their fingers since nobody sees them. Unless results are expected and demanded, humans don’t perform well.

Never forget how lucky you are to be able to work. Instead of saying: “I’m doing so much and so well, I deserve more pay.” You should always say: “Thank you. I’ll work even harder.”

All people are born with talent, but many don’t realize what those talents are. Pay more attention to what you and others are good at and less to where you could use some help.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/ Twitter: judittokyo