National

Autistic people find independence at unique facility in Saitama

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Due to a dearth of job opportunities in Japan for autistic people, mainly deriving from a lack of understanding toward the disorder, it is often difficult for them to lead independent lives after they attain adulthood.

However, an institution in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, is one rare place where adults with autism can earn their own living and enjoy life to the fullest.

In early December, a group of 13 people, including parents of autistic children and doctors from China, visited the institution, Keyaki no Sato (The Zelkova Home), in hopes of building the same kind of institution in Beijing.

“It’s a dreamlike institution. We don’t have an institution like this in China (where autistic people can work and lead independent lives). I also visited Taiwan and Hong Kong, but they don’t have such facilities either,” said Zhu Chun-yan, vice president of the Beijing Association of Rehabilitation for Children with Autism.

It was Zhu’s third visit to the institution in the last eight years.

Zhu has an autistic son. She says she has struggled for a long time to raise him while at the same time finding it difficult to secure a place for him to study or work after he graduated from junior high school.

During their five-day visit to Japan, the group exchanged information with founders and staff of Keyaki no Sato.

They also took in a stage performance of “Tabie! Jiheisho no Musukorato” (“Let’s Go on a Trip! With Our Autistic Sons”), a play based on a book written by Yoshiko Abe, cofounder of the institution, and the mother of an autistic son.

Staged at Sainokuni Saitama Arts Theater in the city of Saitama, the performance kicked off the Saitama Arts Festival for people with disabilities, which will run through next March.

As was illustrated on stage, what is unique about Keyaki no Sato is that people there are earning their own living in workplaces such as a factory located inside the institution that makes wooden pallets, or at other firms in the nearby community, including a bakery. Other autistic people prepare “bento” lunch boxes in the kitchen for those who work at the facility, or weave cloth to make bags and purses that are sold in stores.

They can live independently, receiving disability payments in addition to their salaries.

In this way, many of them can live apart from their families, together with other autistic people and staff from the institution.

Keyaki no Sato was built in 1985 by a group of 21 parents of autistic children. They wanted to establish a place where their children could live and work safely, especially after graduating from school.

The parents were worried about their children’s future, in particular whether they could secure a decent job.

Since 1979, children under special care have been able to receive compulsory education until junior high school age like any other children, and some can go on to high school, but jobs after graduation have not been widely available.

Abe, 82, the mother of Taro, who is now 51 years old, was one of the mothers who pushed to build the institution from scratch. She also wrote a book about how she and her husband raised Taro, with a focus on their son and her experiences while traveling in Canada.

“Tabie! Jiheisho no Musukorato” was published in 2009 as a revised version of the original 1997 publication under the title “Aikotoba wa ‘No Problem’ — Jiheisho no Kora, Canadian Rockies-e” (“No Problem’ is the Motto — Off to the Canadian Rockies with Our Autistic Children”).

The book is about three autistic people in their 30s who, together with their mothers, traveled abroad for the first time. Their destination was Canada, where they found people understanding and welcoming of those with disabilities or disorders.

Abe wrote in her book that they were warmly welcomed by the Canadian people, often with the phrase “no problem,” even when they told people they met or spoke to during the trip that their sons had autism.

“This experience became the basis of my thinking, and my dream to realize a coexisting community in Japan, through the development of Keyaki no Sato,” said Abe.

The book has an episode describing the time Abe got furious with a school principle when her son was refused entry at a local elementary school because of his disorder, and also how local residents opposed a plan to build Keyaki no Sato on the land in Saitama Prefecture.

“The residents insisted that building such an institution that housed autistic people would lower the property value in the area,” said Abe.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, restricted interests and repetitive behavior. There are an estimated 360,000 autistic people in Japan, which accounts for about three out of every 1,000 people, according to Autism Society Japan.

As they become older and if they receive training, as they do at Keyaki no Sato, their condition can improve to the point where they can communicate and interact better with others around them.

However, society back when Abe was raising Taro did not have enough understanding, and people sometimes thought of autistic people as “dangerous.”

Later, the parents managed to find a different parcel of land for the facility, and over the years Keyaki no Sato has continued to grow.

Currently, 95 people live there. It has eight individual facilities, including the pallet factory, four group homes and a support center for those with developmental disorders.

“It is where autistic people — no matter what level of disability they suffer, whether it be slight or severe — can achieve independence in a group environment,” Abe said.

Her son, who has severe autism, joined the facility when he was 20. He has been an employee in the pallet-making factory ever since.

Zhu, the visitor from China, says she was impressed by the love and energy of the mothers who achieved their dream of building an institution for their sons and daughters.

“I learned two things from visiting Keyaki no Sato. Firstly, I was impressed by the fact that the parents, who are also the founders of the institution, fought no matter what for the sake of their autistic children, with a strong heart and dream to build the institution.

“This way of thinking, and action based on this mentality, brought about the (brilliant) results which can be seen in Keyaki no Sato today,” Zhu wrote in her notes after visiting the institution.

Secondly, she said she was strongly aware of “the principle of ‘group independency’ ” that is prevalent at Keyaki no Sato.

“Whether one has a disability or not, each one of us can cooperate and live as a member of society. If it’s difficult for those with severe disabilities to lead their lives independently, those with light disabilities can support them, and everyone can help each other and live together,” she said.