First Lady of Albania Attends Opening of New Autism Support Center in Tirana

Autism Speaks and Albanian Children Foundation Partner to Advance Autism Research and Awareness

TIRANA, ALBANIA (November 30, 2011) – Liri Berisha, M.D., president of the Albanian Children Foundation (ACF), and her husband Prime Minister Sali Berisha joined representatives of Autism Speaks today to celebrate the opening of the Albanian Children Foundation Centre in Tirana. The Centre brings needed autism awareness, research, services and professional training to families in Albania and South East Europe. The Albanian Children Foundation is a partner in Autism Speaks’ Global Autism Public Health (GAPH) initiative, an international effort that aims to increase autism recognition, service delivery, and research collaboration around the world.

“We are very excited to celebrate the opening of the new Centre, which will serve as an incredible resource for families throughout the region,” said Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks, at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility. “Albania’s commitment to autism and to creating the Centre is impressive and should serve as an example to other countries in the region.”

Also in attendance were members of the Albanian government and dignitaries from Europe and the Middle East. Families and local professionals were invited to explore the new facilities, which include state-of-the-art clinical and therapeutic rooms, a large lecture theatre that can accommodate one hundred people, a library donated by researchers from the UK and U.S. and administrative offices for ACF.

Dr. Berisha, who is the driving force behind change for families with autism in Albania and put the plan to have the new centre built into action, commented that “We are so delighted to share this special day with friends. This new centre could not have been completed without the generosity of the Albanian people and we hope to have created a place of comfort and support for families who have been touched by autism.”

The Albanian Children Foundation was Autism Speaks’ first GAPH partner in 2009 and the relationship has fostered important progress in addressing autism in Albania. GAPH-Albania has overseen the translation and publication of textbooks for parents and teachers, professionals have been trained in the use of early intensive behavioral intervention and a pilot screening study has recently been completed in the Albanian capital Tirana. Additionally, in 2010 the Albanian Ministry of Health signed a commitment to develop a national strategy on autism.

Building off these successes, Dr. Berisha and Autism Speaks worked with the Albanian Ministry of Health to explore regional development through the establishment of the South-East European Autism Network (SEAN). Currently, seven Ministries of Health have signed onto SEAN and pledge to work in partnership to improve autism research capacity, professional training and services. Using GAPH-Albania as a model, this network will explore best practices that can be replicated throughout the region.

“By working in partnership with the Albanian Children Foundation over GAPH-Albania we have demonstrated what can be achieved for families with the commitment and passion of our international experts, the ACF staff and Dr. Berisha,” said Simon Wallace, Ph.D., Autism Speaks’ Director of Scientific Development in Europe.

Also honored during the proceedings was Professor Deborah Fein, Ph.D. of the Department of Psychology at the University of Connecticut. She is the recipient of an Autism Speaks $200,000 GAPH grant. The award will be in partnership with the Albanian Children Foundation and will support Dr. Fein’s development of a program focused on screening, diagnosis and parent led intervention which will utilize the new facilities at the Albanian Children Foundation Centre.

The day concluded with a fundraising gala to celebrate the opening of the Centre. Proceeds benefitted the Albanian Children Foundation. Read more and see photos on the Autism Speaks blog.

About Autism
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders – autism spectrum disorders – caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum – a 600 percent increase in the past two decades that is only partly explained by improved diagnosis.

About Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is the world’s largest autism science and advocacy organization. Since its inception in 2005, Autism Speaks has made enormous strides, committing over $160 million to research and developing innovative new resources for families. The organization is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. In addition to funding research, Autism Speaks has created resources and programs including the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, Autism Speaks’ Autism Genetic Resource Exchange and several other scientific and clinical programs. Notable awareness initiatives include the establishment of the annual United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, which Autism Speaks celebrates through its Light it Up Blue initiative. Also, Autism Speaks award-winning “Learn the Signs” campaign with the Ad Council has received over $300 million in donated media. Autism Speaks’ family resources include the Autism Video Glossary, a 100 Day Kit for newly-diagnosed families, a School Community Tool Kit, a Grandparent’s Guide to Autism, and a community grant program. Autism Speaks has played a critical role in securing federal legislation to advance the government’s response to autism, and has successfully advocated for insurance reform to cover behavioral treatments in 29 states thus far, with bills pending in an additional 10 states. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 80 cities across North America. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.autismspeaks.org.

About the Co-Founders
Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Bob Wright is Senior Advisor at Lee Equity Partners and Chairman and CEO of the Palm Beach Civic Association. He served as Vice Chairman of General Electric; and as the Chief Executive Officer of NBC and NBC Universal for more than twenty years. He also serves on the board of directors of the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation, Mission Product, EMI Group Global Ltd., and AMC Networks Inc., and is a Trustee of the New York Presbyterian hospital. Suzanne Wright is a Trustee Emeritus of Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. Suzanne has received numerous awards, the Women of Distinction Award from Palm Beach Atlantic University, the CHILD Magazine Children’s Champions Award, Luella Bennack Volunteer Award, Spirit of Achievement award by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's National Women’s Division and The Women of Vision Award from the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 2008, the Wrights were named to the Time 100 Heroes and Pioneers category, a list of the most influential people in the world, for their commitment to global autism advocacy. They have also received the first ever Double Helix Award for Corporate Leadership from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the NYU Child Advocacy Award, the Castle Connolly National Health Leadership Award and the American Ireland Fund Humanitarian Award. In the past couple of years the Wrights have received honorary doctorate degrees from St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s University and UMass Medical School.