*Stephen lives with his parents and younger sister in an unregistered simple home in a very poor area of Bathore, a suburb of Tirana, the capital of Albania. The community has limited infrastructure and families have to buy drinking water from a tanker which calls at the end of the street every day.
Stephen’s father supports the family by working as a day labourer. Each day he goes out looking for work, some days he’s successful. He’s paid a very low wage – mostly in construction projects. Life isn’t easy. They struggle to live on a low income….and Stephen is autistic. His behaviour can be challenging, and he has difficulty communicating verbally. The children’s Grandma lives nearby and helps with the children when their Mum goes out – it’s not easy going anywhere if Stephen is around.
Stephen was a difficult baby and toddler. At fifteen months he spoke a few words – then suddenly stopped speaking. His parents found him impossible to discipline, and at 2½ years old he was still unable to carry out basic functions. Stephen’s parents had no knowledge of the milestones of child development, but a neighbour (a medical student) suggested he might have a hearing problem. He saw an audiologist who told them Stephen needed to see a psychologist. Eventually Stephen was diagnosed with autism. The only available treatment centre was in the middle of Tirana – at a private facility. The family couldn’t afford transport into Tirana, let alone costs for therapy.
Stephen’s parents knew about New Day Centre (NDC), Global Care’s project in Albania. For many years the Centre was based close to their home and they talked to staff and watched the activities. They decided to ask NDC for help. When NDC staff first met Stephen, he was ‘like a baby’. He cried constantly, he was still in nappies, he couldn’t communicate with anyone. Two years later, Stephen still attends the Centre’s Kindergarten. Every morning he is collected in the Global Care yellow minibus. He has breakfast at the Centre, then for half-an-hour all the Kindergarten children are together.
Stephen and five other children with autism leave the main classroom for an hour of group therapy, then re-join the main Kindergarten for play and learning – but each of the children with autism is taken out in turn for individual therapy. The children all have lunch before the van takes them home again.
This incredible service of inclusive education and play, alongside group and individual therapy is not available anywhere else in the area. In Tirana, children with autism can access therapy but not education – and New Day Centre is free for children like Stephen thanks to Global Care supporters and partners.
Stephen’s mum suffers from anxiety and depression. She’s been helped by attending a mother’s support group at NDC. She’s able to share concerns about some of his antisocial behaviour and anxiety about his habit of biting his hand when he’s feeling emotional. She’s beginning to understand that Stephen finds the world very difficult and this is a way of expressing his frustration. She can talk to other mums with autistic children. All the Kindergarten children’s mothers can go to the group, and Stephen’s mother knows these mums accept her and her son, and that they too are learning how to support children with autism.
Today Stephen is affectionate and loving. He can identify four colours and three shapes. He’s starting to develop fine motor skills. He’s happy with his teachers and therapists and with other children. He loves detail – he likes to play with toys like cars and trailers with intricate details. His parents found a little table and chairs, so Stephen and his sister can play and draw in their own corner of the living room. His mother sits at the little table with him and does the activities the therapist recommends. Stephen understands a lot even though he can’t speak. He’s found other ways of communicating so his parents understand his needs and thinking better. He understands instructions. He is tidier and more disciplined. He can use the toilet. He puts his shoes on and off and dresses himself.
Stephen’s parents say New Day Centre is the only help they’ve had. The Centre has made a big difference, especially the parents support group, and has given them hope. They said, “This centre is for the benefit of the future children. We are optimistic because we see the changes.” They know life with Stephen is going to be full of challenges, but they know they’re not alone. Stephen’s family are full of gratitude to the staff at New Day Centre. They said, “The difference is like night and day.”
*name changed to protect the child’s identity