The Anderson Center for Autism has designated Dutchess County as an Autism Supportive County, making it the first in New York state to receive such a recognition.
To be named an Autism Supportive County, a county must demonstrate its commitment to Anderson’s mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism across areas such as education, infrastructure, and sustainability.
Dutchess County’s work was first formalized when County Executive Marcus Molinaro announced the ThinkDifferently initiative, at which point a committee was formed to explore possible services and programs in this area. From that came a host of programs services and changes making the county more inclusive for people with disabilities.
Dutchess County’s efforts illustrated a comprehensive effort to enhance life for people with autism and special needs in education, inclusion, infrastructure, and sustainability, the center said.
September 13th, 2019
When you ask people what they love about life in the Hudson Valley region, the typical response is: “the four seasons!”. Having moved here to be close to our son Owen, who is now a full-time resident at Anderson Center for Autism, I’d say that answer is pretty spot-on. For most.
Every season is truly special for the vast majority of people who live here. Spring is a celebration all over the Northeast, when people come out of hibernation to reconnect with neighbors and the quiet little villages around us come to life. Summer is full of nourishment: from farm-fresh produce to family festivals, every day brings an opportunity to create memories. The foliage of autumn in a valley where the Catskills meet the Hudson River provides the perfect setting for hiking, biking, or a brisk walk. And the cold winter temperatures carry the perfect ambience for holiday gatherings and comfort food. There’s something very unique about each season – and those of us who live here tend to feel connected to all four, for pretty universal reasons.
But for someone like Owen and most people on the autism spectrum, there’s a different kind of universal truth: change can be really, really difficult. The shift in routine and activities that come with a turn of the calendar from one month to another – not to mention clocks changing for the start and end of Daylight Savings – is especially hard. People with autism, which presents with communication and sensory processing challenges, tend to thrive when life is more structured, expectations are clear, and they can stick to that which is comfortable.
So just imagine for a moment what it’s like to be my son Owen. A change of seasons means many changes. For him, the change in what he needs to wear might be the most painful. Owen can be very rigid in this regard. Admittedly, I love his crazy cat t-shirts and donut socks, and there’s something to be said for the smile these items bring to his face and to all of us who know that these are his go-to items. But let’s face it: wearing shorts in a blizzard is not a good idea. Nor are the flip-flops he insists on wearing regardless of the wind chill factor dipping to a record low. Couple his desire to wear summer attire during January’s cold fronts with the challenge of putting must-have mittens on someone who simply doesn’t like the feel of fabric on his hands, and it can make the magic of a winter festival less than magical.
However, as any Mom or Dad of a child with autism knows, and as his team at Anderson Center for Autism is well-aware, creativity – and a patient, gentle approach to change – are cornerstones of successful caregiving. You have to pull out all the stops to ensure the well-being of any child, and that’s what we’ve learned to do.
Let’s start with creativity. Most people pack their winter clothes away for spring and summer, and likewise do the same for fall and winter. As Mom to a young man with autism, I have to be very strategic about this ritual. I try to hide Owen’s clothes when he is not looking. I need to put away his favorite pieces of apparel, not appropriate for our Hudson Valley winters, and do the same in the warmer months – all without him taking notice. It’s not easy. Believe me, Owen is always watching–even when we don’t know it!
However, it’s all balanced with ensuring that he has the sense of self needed to endure the tough changes of season. I want him to feel like himself – always. And so does his staff. So we make it happen in smaller ways. We approach change with patience and a collective gentle spirit, giving him some continuity in context of the broader transition to make it a little easier.
For example, he still has access to his cat shirts and donut socks. After all, he wouldn’t be Owen without his signature style. I cherish and honor that. And since he doesn’t love hats, we’ve learned to try to buy ones that somehow align with Owen’s favorite things: for example, he loves his Scooby Doo hat. And of course, if he loves something, we know to get more than one. Especially those hats, mittens, gloves – the winter essentials for every wardrobe; those have a tendency to get lost just as easily as all the socks we lose in the washing machine!
As far as Daylight Savings goes, I’ve learned to help him work slowly through that change as well. We begin changing the clock back two weeks early, in five-minute increments. Taking this change in smaller steps leading up to it makes it so much easier.
Working through these transitions is a team effort of course. We work closely with his team at Anderson, who have known him since he started there at age 13. Now that he’s nineteen years old, we’ve all been through many seasons with Owen. While there are still challenges, he’s becoming so much more agreeable to so many new things. By working together to help him gradually cope with changes like moving into different seasons, I think he feels honored and loved in a way that makes him more open to other changes in his life as well.
Feeling honored and loved through every season of life. Hmm. Isn’t that what we ALL need to get through that which pulls us out of our comfort zones?
September 18th, 2019
The Village of Rhinebeck, New York, is an Autism Supportive Community, one of just a handful across the country. The effort that began less than a year ago is entering its second phase.
The initiative began with officials from the Anderson Center for Autism, in neighboring Staatsburg, approaching Rhinebeck Mayor Gary Bassett. With an immediate yes from Bassett, the village helped in the formation of an Autism Supportive Community Committee earlier this year, and it took off from there as a collaboration with Anderson. Rhinebeck resident Katy Kollar, whose 19-year-old son Owen is at Anderson, sits on the committee
“The hashtag for this Rhinebeck Supportive Community was Justonething. And that’s all we were asking the businesses to do,” Kollar says. “Now some were already doing just one thing. Some were already doing more than one thing.”
As a committee member, Kollar went to various businesses in the village to secure pledges to do just one thing to support people with autism.
“I was just so overwhelmed by the willingness to support families with children with autism,” Kollar says.
Mayor Bassett says the idea is to ensure that businesses and organizations have received the training and tools that allow them to be more accommodating for the 1 in 59 people on the autism spectrum.
“It wasn’t developing changing your store; it was, do one simple act of kindness, whether it’s lowering your lights, having a sensory kit, to make that available so when somebody comes in, they know that they’re supportive,” Bassett says. “And, as a result of their pledges, they got a sticker to put on their door so when people are walking through the village, they see that this store, this business is supportive of autism awareness within the community. And they know if they go in there they’re going to get the help that they need. Fantastic. I’m overwhelmed with the people who and the organizations that committed to do this.”
Collar gives the example of one of the many businesses that is supportive.
“A number of places in town were already pretty familiar with autism and Anderson. I will say, in particular, Village Pizza, which is one of the pizza places Owen loves to go. They know his order — two slices of pizza, not too hot, and an apple juice. And they just, they were always welcoming right from the very beginning,” says Collar. “And Owen, again, has other behaviors. You can’t touch his plate to take it away so if he’s finished, they know not to try to take it. He likes to throw it out in the garbage himself.”
Kathleen Marshall is director of program services at the Anderson Center for Autism.
“Through research we found Ireland is very supportive of people with autism. We’re learning about Mesa, Arizona becoming a certified destination. So I think there’s pockets of it brewing but, given the amount of people on the spectrum, it’s not many places, really, when you do the math,” Marshall says. “So we’re excited that we think we’re the first community to do this in New York state and perhaps in the Northeast region. But some places may be doing it and we don’t know it.”
Marshall, who led public education forums as part of the effort to have Rhinebeck become an Autism Supportive Community, says the village is incorporating sensory awareness in other ways.
“Be it a parade or Sinterklass or Porchfest that’s coming up, they have established a sensory safe space that will be offered at every one of those community events,” Marshall says. “And the mayor is going to change the application for community events to include sensory safe place. So they’re building it into their infrastructure, which is so important because he’s thinking about sustainability of this.”
And that, says Bassett, is what he’ll address in phase two — sustainability. He’s also looking to create a way so visitors know where to go, a roadmap of sorts, perhaps in a brochure or online. Again, Marshall:
“We want to replicate this,” says Marshall. “We want to go to other communities and help them become supportive because it’s the right thing to do.”
She says Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro set the stage with Think Differently, inspired by his daughter who is on the autism spectrum. He launched the initiative in 2015, seeking to change the way individuals, businesses, organizations and communities relate to their neighbors with all abilities.
“What Rhinebeck is doing is remarkable because it’s saying not only to residents, many of whom feel marginalized, that they are embraced, that they’re not different and that all of us are going to strive to be a more inclusive community, is a remarkable message that I have absolutely no doubt other communities will embrace,” Molinaro says. “We’ll work with Anderson Center to expand the reach in the hopes that other communities in Dutchess take the time to go through really the steps necessary to accomplish this. And we hope that it’s a model for the country, that more and more think to choose differently.”
Rhinebeck Sergeant Peter Dunn says his police department participated in Anderson training with other village employees in July.
“So basically we all got the training, all got certified, and then, shortly after that, the police department implemented sensory kits. So basically what we learned was types of earphones, like you use for firearms training, and also a squeeze toy, and we call it Bert. It’s formed in a, like a police officer and it’s a rubber squeeze toy,” says Dunn. “So we’ve run up on at least one incident where we’ve used it already, a car accident, for an example, is what happened. And the officer gets there and realizes this a car accident, there’s nobody seriously hurt, but it’s a lot of noise, you have sirens and the cars and tow trucks and other vehicles. So we gave the child the sensory earphones to use, and it worked.”
He says every police car in the village has a sensory kit.
June 30, 2019
My concept of freedom has clearly changed over the years. I started out like any child does, wanting freedom at some point from being told what to do. I understood at some level that I had the freedom of living in America; my parents made this very clear to us at an early age. During the sixties there were assassinations: John and Robert Kennedy, as well as Martin Luther King. The Vietnam war broke out and there was starvation in Biafra. We were brought up to be grateful for everything we had. “Eat your dinner - children are starving in Biafra.” Going to school, meeting new people, gaining new perspectives, changes in my family structure, going off to college, working, dating, marriage, parenting, aging, retiring - each new chapter has changed my view, my perception. I think we can all agree as human beings that freedom means having choices. Whether we have choices or reject the choices we are given - it is a fluid concept. Freedom without direction, however, isn’t an optimal state of being. I realize that now by looking back on my journey.
The funny thing about freedom is you get to the point where, in my case, the college years are over, and the career begins, and you think to yourself…...freedom at last. To a certain extent I really did feel that way about teaching at first. I knew my subject and I wanted to have kids really love biology. So the kid part of teaching is great, and for a good 15 years I really felt that I could be creative, and put my own spin on education. I am not sure when the big shift came, maybe it was the internet and the ability to electronically keep tabs on workers, but the pendulum swung back to a more rigid paradigm. If everyone (teachers within a subject area) wasn’t all doing the same thing, then the students would “miss out.” To some extent this may be true, but I did not go into teaching to be a formatted robot. My intellectual freedom was a challenge. I managed to do what I thought was best even under these circumstances, but at times I felt “punished” and not a “team player”, because of the lack of want other educators had to stretch themselves. So, I did what any caring teacher does: close the door to my classroom and teach the way I wanted. This is how I managed to keep my sense of freedom as an educator. On that note, I was raised by two educators that - if I dared complain about a teacher, which I’d seldom do - would school me on the facts of life. They would tell me that life is filled with all sorts of people. Some you will like and admire, and some not. They were right. The experiences I had with great teachers and not-so-great teachers enabled me to deal with certain personalities I would come across - during my teaching career and life in general. They would say, “What makes you think you are going to like everyone in your life?” There is a sense of freedom just in knowing that.
Getting married and having children yanks at that freedom and pulls you down underwater sometimes, while you scream to yourself, “I don’t want to compromise, no I don’t!” And I won’t. What are the choices then? Leave, a very complicated ordeal. Or go to therapy, which I did, for over 20 years. Make no mistake about it, therapy can be the most freeing string of conversations a person can have. Think about it. You are paying someone to listen to your drama, your pain, your innermost thoughts, thoughts that you have locked up because way back when you decided to be “the good girl.”
Having the boys clearly put my freedom on hold. All children do, but raising special needs children is a whole other ballgame. There is a mourning period - death of a normal life - whatever that means, but with one, then two, the mourning period shortened as we tried to figure out what to do.
Autism. After 25 years in, the struggles, the joy in small gains made, have transformed me as a mother, not to mention made me a more inclusive educator. Our Matty, a 20-year-old young man with autism, will be entering his last year at Anderson Center for Autism, where he has spent almost four years in the freedom of a safe and secure environment that has allowed his independence to soar. Next year Anderson will ready him for the transition into an adult placement, a forever home, there he will continue on his journey towards freedom. It is freedom with direction, the best kind. For this I am eternally grateful.
An old friend sent me an email about a month ago, all excited about a homeopath that might ”cure” or reverse autism. Both of my boys have been seen by a homeopath early on in their development, as I looked for alternative means by which to “save” them from autism. I looked at that the email with a new sense of freedom. The new sense of freedom was to let my children, who are now young men, be who they are, and to stop chasing unicorns. Of course I checked out the site, which made all sorts of promises, and began what would be a very short, “online” chat with a “specialist.” As I probed the specialist with questions about the treatments, the return comment seemed to be the same….. You need to see this man for your son. Again, wow. What a revelation. I simply hit “delete.”
Finding the courage to let go of expectations when it comes to my sons is still a struggle; we all want the best for our children. When I am able to do so, I thank them out loud. It has taken me a lifetime to come to this place, but I am grateful. The serenity prayer says it all.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. [Niebuhr]
Let freedom ring.
March 25, 2019
Whether or not you’ve worked with those who have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, you’ve likely heard of the world-renowned Temple Grandin. A tireless advocate for people who share her diagnosis, a highly respected businesswoman and author, an animal rights activist, and a true visionary, the lessons of her journey can revolutionize the way we all experience the world. Here are a few examples of what we’ve all gained so far from this leader:
We all learn in unique ways. By calling attention to the fact that most on the spectrum think in pictures, Temple Grandin has inspired critically important changes to the way we educate. For teachers, therapists, and family members, the awareness that some are ‘visual learners’ has resulted in much deeper connections both in and out of the classroom for people with autism. The revelation has also helped every one of us recognize that there is a broad spectrum of learning styles represented in our circles of family, friends, and colleagues. While some think in pictures as Temple Grandin does, others respond better to auditory information and others prefer the written word; some need a combination to comprehend and retain. Grandin’s work reminds us to be cognizant of how others process information, helping us let go of long-held, limiting assumptions - thus opening up worlds for everyone.
We all think in unique ways. Temple Grandin has solidified the importance of valuing neurodiversity. In lieu of working to ‘fix’ people with autism, she’s encouraged us to honor and embrace unique perspectives. She’s helped us see that because brains of those with autism are wired differently, those brains are also able to give birth to innovative ideas that can change the world. Imagine what life would look like for all of us had our society squelched people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates just because of a possible autism diagnosis. What it would have looked like had they not been celebrated for their genius minds? Temple Grandin reminds us to celebrate, not scrutinize - a lesson we must carry forth to future generations.
We all have unique needs. Temple Grandin has sparked discussion about how to best serve this population, a topic that has become increasingly more relevant as autism incidence rates rise exponentially. Most of us in the field know the adage, ‘when you’ve met someone with autism, you’ve met ONE PERSON with autism.’ The truth is, however, it’s not just about Autism. We must heed this message for ‘neurotypicals’ as well. We’re ALL unique. Every one of us requires a specific set of circumstances to thrive. Temple Grandin’s passion for animal welfare has allowed her to tap into parts of herself that have helped her come to life. We all need to periodically reflect on what interests, skills, and talents we have that bring us true purpose - and then build a life around those areas.
Perhaps most importantly, Temple Grandin’s story reminds us that we all soar when others believe in us. Despite the fact that her father and doctor felt a very young Temple Grandin should be institutionalized, her mom got to work helping her daughter build social skills and coordinating speech therapy sessions. The message Temple’s mom sent was clear: she believed in the potential of her little girl, and she’d work relentlessly to give her the best life she could. That message must have taken root, as it would for any young person; there’s no doubt that Temple’s confidence comes from a deep place, and that it has provided her with the foundation needed to make an immeasurable impact on our world.
Regardless of Autism or other labels, we must focus on talents instead of deficits. We must look for opportunities to be more inclusive. We must give the people around us everything they need to experience the highest quality of life possible, just as Temple Grandin’s mom did for her.
Patrick Paul is the CEO/Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism, located in Staatsburg, whose organizational mission is to "optimize the quality of life for people with autism." Visit andersoncenterforautism.org to learn more or visit our YouTube channel to meet some of our staff and families: https://www.youtube.com/user/AndersonCenterAutism/videos.