Albanian autism centre sets the example

Champions of charity

In the hills outside Tirana looking out on the desolate mountains of Albania, an extraordinary initiative for children with autism spectrum disorder became real. On two locations in the periphery of the Albanian capital, the Regional Centre for Autism shows an exceptional example of state-of-the-art facilities for diagnostics and day treatment of young Albanians and for the education of therapists and supporting personnel. Made possible by an extremely powerful charity network of first ladies.

Ariel Çomo at the autism centre, Albania.These amenities know no equal in the Balkan region and could even compete with the best treatment facilities in the western world – little islands of well developed mental health care in a desert of poverty.

First ladies’ network
In post-communist rhetoric the centre is advertised as “a wonderful symbol of kindness, hope, human love and generosity”, which alludes to the way this project has been realized: through charity. The project could well be defined as a show-case of power-charity, with in the lead Dr Liri Berisha, wife of Sali Berisha, former president and prime minister of Albania. Berisha has the best of relations in international high circles, specifically the network of first ladies including famous spouses such as Cherie Blair, Ban Soon-taek (‘mrs. Bank Ki-moon’), Michelle Obama and Yoko Lennon-Ono. Supported by United States’ super-fundraiser Autism Speaks, Berisha’s high-class network managed to establish a contrastingly beautiful autism centre on two locations in the middle of a distressingly underdeveloped landscape of mental health care.

Appealing and emotional
Shorltly after the opening of the autism centre in November 2011, scientific director Dr Ariel Çomo said: “Some years ago what was happening in Albanian autism care, matched to the poorest countries. What we provide today is still far from developed countries, but I personally think that serious efforts are made to go along with what is done in developed countries.” His modesty seems hardly applicable to the outstanding facilities that were carefully designed to the needs of the patients and their parents. The involvement of Albanian architect Marin Biçoku became “appealing and emotional”, he says. “To design a project for a centre like this, you had to understand everything about autism and had to think why this project can not be considered as a simple contract but as a social obligation.” He gave the centre its pleasantly light and open characteristics with multi-functional spaces and with a ‘peacefulness’ that suits the children that are treated here. The centre is equipped with observation rooms, video conferencing facilities, conference rooms with a wireless simultaneous translation system and a therapeutic swimming pool. Biçoku learned about the behaviour of children with autism and took the way they perceive the world around them in consideration.

Autism Centre, Albania.Capacity
Given the under capacity of mental health services it was no surprise that a few years later, another centre was needed. This time the charity network presented the State of Kuwait for funding the purchase and adaptation of a former residential villa not far from the first autism centre. The building is now transformed into a centre for mainly group therapy for kids of seven and older. Parents start to discover these services and the capacity is again exceeded – acquiring the neighbouring villa is now being considered.
How are the chances of sustaining these service facilities, purely funded by charity? Ariel Çomo: “Evidently we are very grateful with the substantial gifts that have made all of this possible. The Albanian Children Foundation remains very active in raising funds for this project and I am sure that guarantees some kind of continuity. But there is no choice – as a developing country we do not have sufficient government budgets for project like this. We still have to develop mental health care in general, so we should consider the possibility we have here as a unique example that may motivate all mental health workers in the region. Apart from their function – these centres really add to the need – this project is extremely inspiring and it shows us which way to go.”

Respond to this subject.
View the other parts the series: the Ariel Çomo interview and the academic education of child and adolescent psychiatrists in Albania.


  • Liri Berisha

    Liri Berisha MD (67) is president of the Albanian Children Foundation. She used to work as a paediatrician and is now extensively involved in fundraising and awareness campaigns, focused on children. As a UNICEF ambassador Berisha supported activities in Albania and abroad. She was awarded numerous times for her humanitarian work, most recently she received the Global Autism Achievement Award for her charity work on behalf of children with autism at the New York United Nations General Assembly in 2014.

  • Albanian Children Foundation

    The mission of the Albanian Children Foundation is “to help children in need, irrespective of faith or ethnic background, with priority given to newly born and abandoned infants, the handicapped, and institutions which support them by providing food, shelter and education.”
    Many autism related activities in Albania were initiated by the Albanian Children Foundation. A working group to develop a strategy for autism in Albania was formed in collaboration with the ministry of health and the American organization ‘Autism Speaks’. The foundation stood at the start of the regional autism centre and supported it until its realization. Books on autism for parents and practitioners were translated into the Albanian language and many fund raising activities were initiated or supported by the foundation.
    Read more on the foundation’s website:
    View the official brochure of the Autism Centre (pdf, 44 pages).
    Albanian Children Foundation, logo.

  • The Albanian experience

    Joaquin FuentesThe experience describes an excellent initiative to start supporting a segment of the population that it is frequently abandoned in many countries. The value of this model will be amplified by its dissemination across the nation – by sharing the news of a condition called ASD; by promoting translations of adequate materials and by wide teaching and learning among mental health and education professionals, and by a democratic empowerment of the citizens affected by autism and their families.
    Then, it can be predicted, following what has happened in other areas of our world, that many more children will be diagnosed – making it impossible to serve them into a few special units, as well as – in the way the videos from this center show – more and more children will benefit from supported placement in informed community resources.
    This is the real merit of these initiatives. Persuade science, politicians and lay public, that these children, these adolescents, these adults and their families deserve to be part of us. And make these programmes agents for developing services for all.
    As the UN 2014 Development Program has established, the key elements to reduce vulnerabilities and build resilience in a community are:

    • universal education
    • health provision
    • social services, and
    • full employment.

    And child and adolescent psychiatrists have an essential role for many of these aspects… in Albania, and in Europe at large.

    Joaquin Fuentes, MD
    ESCAP Autism Field Advisor
    ESCAP logo