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.