The sign on the door says 'The Happy Kindergarten'. Through the window, you can see a five-year-old boy playing with colourful wooden blocks.
He turns and smiles, almost acknowledging that you are there...then his gaze goes through you, and he returns to his game. The boy’s name is Danik, and he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in Ukraine when he was three years old.
His parents were devastated by the diagnosis. The symptoms became increasingly severe over time - Danik had trouble entering new spaces and was afraid of unknown people. His acute sensitivity meant that almost any sound could trigger a seizure; even a texture, colour, smell, or taste could lead to aggressive behaviour against himself or others.
Danik started therapy in 2020 but could attend just a few sessions before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the therapy centre closed. When the conflict escalated in February 2022, Danik’s parents sought refuge abroad.
A mountain of fear and anxiety
"Running without knowing where you’re running to, just to save your life, felt like a mountain of fear and anxiety rolling over you," says the mother. "But when you have a child on the spectrum, for whom every unknown situation is a trigger, your worst fear is that you won’t be able to find a safe space for him."
In May 2022, the family did find a safe space. Baia Mare, the town in the north of Romania that had welcomed them, had a specialised centre for autistic children, which had just received CARE funding to support refugees.
When he first arrived, Danik’s condition was critical. He was extremely nervous in the therapy room and wouldn’t sit on the chair, make eye contact, react to his name, speak, or interact with the therapist. He didn’t know how to play with toys. The biggest problem was his aggressive behaviour - biting, hitting, screaming, destroying objects - and especially his self-aggression.
Eight months on, the child we meet is completely different. Danik confidently looks the visitor in the eye, shows his toys, laughs with his parents and the therapists, and reacts with humour when questioned.
The therapist dances, trying to get him to say 'dance.' Instead, Danik prefers to imitate her, laughing.
Danik’s parents are present during the therapy, together with a translator. This is extremely important because they learn to correct certain behaviours and continue supporting their son outside the centre.
"A huge opportunity"
The therapists at the 'Sharing is Caring – Hope for Ukraine' centre are delighted with Danik's progress. Diana Balaj, the psychotherapist who has been working with him since his arrival from Ukraine notes that "he is no longer so sensitive to noises and manages to stay for 15-20 minutes in an activity without leaving the table. He accepts to take one of his parent's hands while calmly waiting for his therapy session to start, which was almost unthinkable when they first arrived. There has been no aggressive behaviour or self-harming for the past two months."
"We never imagined that the war could be such a huge opportunity for our son – strange as this sounds," says Danik’s mother, Marina. "In Ukraine, we didn't know what to do; nobody explained anything or helped us. The flight to Romania was terrible, but then this miracle happened. Thanks to the specialists at the centre, Danik turned into the wonderful child you’re meeting today. The centre helps many people in our situation. I thank them from the bottom of my heart."
The next step in Danik’s journey is to increase his autonomy and develop his socialisation skills to join preschool education.