‘My Way’ Is Helping Children with Autism in Armenia


Rita Sargsyan, left, with Berj Setrakian at My Way

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — It was not the atmosphere we expected to find in a center for youngsters with autism: laughter rang out of one room where children were busily painting, while piano music sounded in another room, where two young lads were performing a duet. Playing from memory without scores, they were fully concentrated, absorbed in producing the strong rhythms. When one of the lads played a solo piece, his companion grabbed the hands of a woman (who turned out to be his mother) and swept her up in dancing across the floor. In another room, a child hovered over his notebook, carefully writing out exercise sentences in Armenian under the watchful eyes of his teacher. In other small rooms, the same one-on-one combination of specialist and student was to be seen: whether in speech therapy or physical therapy. The scenes depicted youngsters concentrated on tasks that they were carrying out in their own fashion, with serenity, or delight or outright joy. The meaning of the center’s slogan — “I am different, I am one of you” — was immediately apparent.

As Lilith Soghomonyan and Sona Petrosyan, co-founders and board members, explained to my husband and me, taking us on a tour of the My Way Socio-Rehabilitation Day Care Center last April, the children come to the center five days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and take part in a wide range of activities, selected in consultation with the parents according to the specific needs of each individual. Therapy is provided in small groups where appropriate or individually, as for example, in speech therapy. Music, art, — whether drawing, painting, paper maché or clay modeling — sports, gardening or making candles, — all sorts of playful and productive activities are available, to allow the students to learn new skills in a social context. And they see the fruits of their endeavors, not only in the final creation, but often in its sale. Near the entrance, we saw such products on display, items ranging from candles to ceramics to works of art. The center has organized online auctions of paintings, for example, and the proceeds go to financing art therapy classes. This commercial activity, albeit on a small scale, illustrates the principle of gainful employment. In fact, as we learned, those running the center hope to expand, to provide actual vocational training to the older students, in an effort to provide them the means to earn a living.

It is a “global mission,” Soghomonyan explained to us, an approach that addresses the needs of the children as well as the families, providing information exchange and advice, and increasing social awareness of the issue. By functioning like a school, with a five-day schedule, the center provides the students with therapeutic, social activity under the supervision of specialists, while allowing families to tend to their jobs and homes.

The Founding Mothers

It should come as no surprise that the founders of the center are mothers of autistic children. Prior to the opening of My Way, there were no facilities in Armenia to address the needs of persons with autism. Lilith, whose daughter Jeva displayed symptoms of autism, came into contact with Renate Beil, a German who had been taking painting lessons from Lilith’s mother Nona Gabrielyan in Wiesbaden. On a visit to Armenia, Beil met Lilith, who is also an artist of the second generation. (Her son Guy represents the third generation of this artistic family, and he was among six young Armenians who exhibited their works in Wiesbaden last December (see “Portraits of the Artists as Young Men,” December 10, 2016 and “Art Inspires Artists,” December 17, 2016).

Through Beil’s intervention, Maria Kaminski, director of the German organization named “Autismus,” travelled to Yerevan several times with associates and organized workshops for the families of autistic children. Kaminski is also the mother of a son with autism, and that is how she got started. She has founded 82 (!) centers for autism in Germany and is currently President of the National Association of Autism — Germany.) She told the Armenian parents, “You have to do something” and they did. Initially, she helped Lilith and her daughter, then it expanded to a group of six children. Out of this process the NGO “Autism. Overcoming” was born, as the effort of a group of parents, among them Soghomonyan and Petrosyan in 2004. Two years later the International Child Development Center (ICDC) was founded by Dr. Ira Heilveil, PhD, an American clinical psychologist and behavior analyst from Los Angeles. Heilveil, who has over 30 years of experience treating children with autism, trained a base of specialists, and in Yerevan, these specialists have trained others, expanding their capabilities. Initially, due to space constraints the center could offer help to a limited number of children and youth.

First Lady Spearheads National Effort

Progress was being made on a national level that was to have a decisive impact on the Yerevan group. In 2012, the “Autism National Foundation” (ANF) was established on the initiative of the First Lady of Republic of Armenia Ms. Rita Sargsyan, who is its President. The Director, Lilit Atajanyan, MD, has been involved in various charitable activities for children with disabilities. The mission of the Foundation, as detailed on its website (www.anf.am), is “To support people with autism in Armenia” which includes children, teenagers and adults. This means providing them education as well as preparing them for meaningful employment. At the same time, the Foundation seeks to enhance their quality of life, increase public awareness and promote social inclusion also with government engagement.

In 2012, the foundation received a building from the Yerevan City Municipality as well as the funds to have it renovated and in January 2015, a new facility opened to provide help for over 100 students. This was the Socio-Rehabilitation Day Care Center for Children and Teenagers with Autism known as My Way. The new Center brings together the ANF, the NGO “Autism.Overcoming” and the ICDC in one facility and is able to offer therapy to 5 times the number of students assisted in the previous site.

Providing a Healthy Life Chain

At the same time, a second building was made available on a neighboring site, slated to house another My Way Center, this one providing age-specific vocational training for teenagers with autism. This includes work stations for vocational training as well as living quarters for young adults. The vocational training, as we learned, includes crafts such as sewing and embroidery as well as carpet weaving and pottery, woodworking, computer skills, gardening, cooking, music and art. The aim is to work with organizations and employers to find jobs for the students and markets for their goods.

In March 2016, a grant from Save the Children financed a pilot “Vocational Training for Teenagers and Young Adults with Autism” and in the five-month program 30 therapists attended seminars and received on-the-job training. Now they are working independently providing speech, art, music and dance therapy. On completion of this part of the project, the parents extended the activities to the end of 2016. Since January 2017, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has been financing the project, providing salaries for 30 of the specialists, albeit at a minimal level. Now My Way is seeking further financial support to raise salaries. Currently 140 students are receiving education and therapy from a total of 73 specialists.

To help children with autism, early diagnosis is crucial. Our guides told us that this might be at the age of 1 or 2 years even, and it is important to begin therapy as soon as possible. As the word has spread about the encouraging work of My Way, more and more parents have made contact, and the waiting list now has well over 150 names. The only obstacle to welcoming them is physical and logistical: My Way needs more room. They have the therapists, the expertise and have gained the experience required, but need expanded facilities.

Last year a third building was made available to them for this expansion, and now the directors are seeking funds for the necessary renovation. Here the vocational training program will find its logical continuation as students will learn the advanced skills and specialization in various fields, preparing them for employment in different professions. About 70 students should find work here, while others will seek employment independently outside the center.

National and Regional Pioneer

The goal is for the center to operate in three buildings: in the first, more than 100 children under the age of 14 will find accommodation, in the second, 70 teenagers and young adults at a time will be able to participate and in the third, 70 adults will find training in the workshops. Currently, the State Budget covers costs for operations and therapy for the first building and it is expected that the same will be the case for the second and third facilities, once they have been renovated and made operational.

It is important to stress that all services available at the Center are free, thanks to government support and partner organizations. It is also noteworthy that this institution is the only one of its kind, not only in Armenia, but throughout the Transcaucasus. Indeed, it is a pioneer in the field and can serve as a role model for similar initiatives nationally and abroad.

When we left Yerevan, Lilith and Sona and their colleagues were optimistic that they would reach their goals and we shared their optimism. As a symbol of that shared commitment, Lilith Soghomonyan gave us a beautiful painting done by her daughter.

This week Lilith has been in Germany, to attend the annual gathering of the German Autism Congress, held in Dortmund on June 9-10. This is the organization of Maria Kaminski. This year’s conference was entitled, “Learn — Work — Quality of Life,” and featured lectures by specialists as well as workshops and round table discussions. The presence of a founding member of My way was a fitting reminder that the campaign to help persons with autism has reached Armenia; and it was a personal acknowledgement of the crucial contribution Kaminski has made to this effort.

For more information about the center, visit http://anf.am/

(Material for this article has been taken from the ANF website and project reports of the ANF and My Way.)