Building a brighter world for Galin

The European Child Guarantee through the eyes of a child on the autism spectrum

UNICEF Bulgaria
boy at playground
UNICEF
09 December 2021

Galin and his mother are going down the gloomy bare stairs, hand in hand. He knows that today they will make the trip to the neighboring city, where she will leave him to play in the room with the big toys. Galin seems to be feeling anxious. His mother is chattering soothingly, but the meaning of the words is lost in his anxiety. The sight of the car parked outside the entrance makes him lose his composure. He starts to turn around and run back. His mother's hand holds him tenderly but firmly. Galin raises his hands before his eyes. This small gesture breaks his mother's heart, as it symbolizes all that she fears for her child. It is as if the world has suddenly become alien and frightening to him, as if everything around him is filled with hostility and misunderstanding, as if this is his fate.

Sometimes she feels there is an invisible wall separating them from each other. To her relief, this time he does not fall into one of his fits, when he starts screaming and bursting in her arms, exposed to the dozens of eyes from the neighboring windows. Instead, he climbs onto the back seat and falls silent, staring out. His mother would give anything to know what is going on in his head. But for all her mother's instincts, she can't read his mind. She can only try to comfort him. Some of the challenges she is facing are due to some of the services being scattered and not integrated. Despite this, “Galin has made some significant progress over the past 18 months since they have been working together, his psychotherapist, Stanimira explains, “He already uses speech to engage in communication,” which has greatly contributed to improving his development and relationships.

UNICEF

This is the start of a day in the life of 4-year-old Galin and his mother Stoyka. Yet no matter how difficult the situation is now, it is a whole world lighter than before. At least now they know that Galin has autism spectrum condition with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity. The family’s ordeal started three years earlier, when they noticed that unlike children his age, little Galin would not speak and would often not respond to his name when called. They were first alerted by the home-visiting nurse. The nurse referred them to a meeting organized by UNICEF in partnership with local authorities , for parents of children with developmental difficulties.

It was at that meeting that, at last, they finally came to know the nature of the challenge they were facing. The information presented that day, as well as consecutive consultations with psychiatrists, made it clear to them their child was dealing with specific developmental issue and needed support. Difficulties began to mount as the family sought the specialized services to help Galin develop his skills and reach developmental milestones. Unfortunately, such services are not available in their hometown or in the kindergarten where Galin spends most of his time and feels most comfortable, so the family still have to travel miles to visit a psychotherapist and a speech therapist.

 

Galin with his mother, Stoyka and Susana, the family dog
UNICEF
Galin with his mother, Stoyka and Susana, the family dog. “Galin needs a child psychologist, a speech therapist, and a resource teacher. These services are not available in town. We do not have a child psychologist. We don't have a speech therapist here,” — says Galin’s mother.

It is stories like Galin’s that have shaped the agenda of the EU Child Guarantee initiative which is focusing on providing integrated early-childhood intervention support services for children with disabilities. Streamlining and integrating these services results in big changes for children like Galin and their families.

The Pilot in Bulgaria supported by the European Commission, supports 4 main areas of work which are interconnected and are centered around the child’s development. These include: home visiting services for families with young children, early childhood intervention support for children with disabilities or those at risk of developmental difficulties, quality inclusive pre-school education for children with learning difficulties together with outreach services which provide family-centred support to disadvantaged families with children.

While Galin is enjoying a game at the Children’s Therapeutic Activity Center in the city of Sliven, the psychotherapist, Stanimira explains some of the progress he’s made “over the past 18 months while we have been working together.” He is now using speech to engage in communication and his movements and behavior are more self-regulated.  He is now more relaxed when parting with his parents.  And, after a short hesitation, she adds: “There are still many issues and some of those will persist for a long, long time.” The session over, Galin now gets dressed and is ready to leave, in a good mood. Mama and Papa are already waiting for him outside. But before getting into the car, he runs to look more closely at a large air conditioner – the hypnotic effect of moving machine parts is fascinating to him. Galin smiles broadly and waves goodbye.

A child and his father
UNICEF
Galin’s father knees down to say goodbye to his son. Every week Galin, whose condition is on the autism spectrum, travels to see different specialists. The EU Child Guarantee initiative is working to offer support to families like Galin’s. Nova Zagora, Bulgaria

The next morning the rain has stopped and every puddle on the street is reflecting a serene blue sky. Galin and his mother have taken the short walk to the kindergarten. Galin lets go of his Mother’s hand and tentatively strolls around the hall, nothing like the uncontrollable wild-eyed toddler, who was once throwing incessant tantrums here. Later, while the children are playing outside, the Director of the kindergarten, Ms. Stoyanova shares, “Every kindergarten needs support from a psychologist; it is very difficult to explain such things to a parent. Providing guidance to the parents on how to support their child’s development, and the teachers – how to work with such children, is crucial,” says she, actually referring to one of UNICEF initiatives in the region aiming to ensure quality inclusive pre-school education for children with disabilities and learning difficulties.

Now, after 3 years of persistence, of knocking on doors and constant traveling between doctors and institutions, the family have recovered their bearings, but at considerable emotional and financial cost. The EU Child Guarantee project aims to integrate these medical and support services through introducing early childhood intervention; to identify developmental difficulties early, initiate referrals, coordinate services and provide family-centered support in the child’s natural environment so no child is left behind despite their circumstances. Galin smiles much more now. He communicates with his peers, and his little brother is imitating him in their games. When asked if they consider themselves happy, Stoyka said:

“We are happy because we are in good health so we can take care of him. Because if, God forbid, something was to happen to us, me or my husband… He will always be neglected because he is different. It’s only us who accept him for who he is.”

Galin snaps away with his brand new digital camera. He is having fun composing shots and is looking very focused. The sun is shining, while the outside world is posing for a photo, the eye of the lens opening and shutting, opening and shutting in Galin's hands.