Every year, more children are being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prevalence in America is estimated at 1 in 59 births. This impacts many families both locally, nationally, and beyond.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but when you have a child on the spectrum, many people run away, effectively ostracizing families. Historically, families have felt devastated when their loved ones received an autism diagnosis and many felt isolated,” says Eliza Bozenski, chief development officer of the Anderson Center for Autism.
“I remember thinking nothing in life could ever feel as dark as 9/11” says Jackie Cannizzaro, who lost her husband Brian in the World Trade Center attacks. After remarrying, Jackie had a son, Kyle who was later diagnosed. “When I heard the diagnosis, it was like a loss of life for my child – the life that I had imagined for him as a parent,” says Jackie Cannizzaro.
According to the Global Autism Project, there are an estimated 70 million people worldwide with autism. The staff at Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg, NY, work together to optimize the quality of life for these individuals and reduce disparities. Through a variety of programs, it teaches academics and daily tasks such as doing laundry, meal prep, and work training. It also provides opportunities for individuals to engage with their local communities.
Anderson’s history can be traced back to 1924. That’s when Dr. Victor V. Anderson – a psychologist and psychiatrist initially opened a boarding school, Anderson School. It served students with special needs and/or those who struggled in traditional public school settings. While Anderson’s name and mission has evolved over time, the organization always remained focused on serving children with special needs.
Anderson Center for Autism serves individuals with a primary diagnosis of autism, and those it believes will respond positively to the interventions and services provided.
Bozenski explains the nature of autism as a “spectrum disorder.” Some individuals are considered to be “higher functioning,” and can communicate verbally and succeed in less restrictive environments within their home districts. Others require more support. Anderson caters to individuals who are challenged by autism, as well as other cognitive and behavioral impairments.
“Beyond receiving an education based on NYS Standards, students learn how to communicate, develop vocational skills, and build social- and self-management skills,” says Dr. Tina Covington, chief operating officer of the Anderson Center for Autism.
Quality of life
Anderson’s current mission is to optimize quality of life for people with autism. Creative arts, gardening, and cooking, are just a few of the fun activities that keep individuals engaged. There are also Special Olympics, trips to sporting events such as Mets and Yankees games, and more.
“Everyone has talents, and recreational and leisure activities that they enjoy. Individuals with autism are no different. Our job is to ensure that everyone enjoys quality of life,” explains Dr. Covington.
The staff at Anderson works together to uncover and cultivate each person’s talents. Individuals are continually exposed to new activities and experiences, which include art, swimming, fitness, bowling, gardening, and beyond. Volunteer opportunities at local businesses such as Red Cap Cleaners in Hyde Park enable individuals to give back to their communities.
Through the Expressive Outcomes Program, individuals create art in multiple ways. Their expressive, colorful artwork is often prominently displayed and available for sale at various art shows across Dutchess and Ulster counties. The Noteworthy collection of greeting cards are created in art classes by students on Anderson’s children’s campus. They are available for purchase at several local businesses and online. All proceeds support the program.
Anderson Center for Autism’s idyllic country locale was befitting for the creation of the Organic Outcomes program, which invites people to tap into nature’s bounty. While working in gardens and greenhouses, individuals learn to grow vegetables, flowers, and spices. They also harvest seeds, which are later pressed into recycled paper. The colorful paper is used in the creation of the Growing Gift collection of greeting cards and gift tags. After use, the cards and tags can be planted. In time, wildflowers will blossom. Growing Gift is available at various shops in the Rhinebeck area. All proceeds support the program.
One of Anderson’s newer initiatives is a partnership with the Village of Rhinebeck. Anderson’s Consulting team is currently working to provide training for businesses and organizations in Rhinebeck, so they can better accommodate those who are on the spectrum. This designates Rhinebeck as an “Autism Supportive Community” – the first of its kind in the region.
People in communities such as Rhinebeck are reaching out and taking initiatives to learn more about autism. Businesses are adjusting to ensure that the families of those with ASD are welcomed, supported, and understood.
“The move to create autism-friendly environments is new, but has already made a positive impact. It’s a recognition that our communities are making efforts to understand the lives of families and children with ASD,” says Dr. Covington.
A stellar staff
Learning is both academic and personally enriching. Anderson’s top-notch staff of clinicians, educators, and direct support professionals are dedicated to working with some of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. They strive to help them learn the skills necessary to become as independent as possible.
Anderson is considered a “restrictive environment.” This is based on a high staff-to-student ratio, as well as the residential and 24 hour/365-day component of the program. It employs the techniques of Applied Behavior Analysis, the “gold standard” of instruction for individuals challenged by autism.
Anderson also employs evidence-based practices across educational, residential, and adult programming (The National Professional Development Center has identified 27 evidenced-based practices). These interventions have been vetted through peer reviewed research methods and are regarded as effective teaching strategies for individuals with ASD.
The organization measures the quality of teaching and its classroom environment against these practices and focuses its intensive teacher training on understanding and incorporating each of these strategies into its learning environments.
Although the decision to place a child into a residential school or adult home is traumatic, Anderson garners a strong network of support from families. The stress families face in navigating programs, and dealing with health and behavior challenges is greatly alleviated once they decide to seek assistance.
Families have repeatedly stated that although the decision to send their children into a residential program was the most challenging ever made, yet it was also the best decision. Children are more engaged in their daily lives than ever, and this, in turn, elevates the overall health of the entire family.
“We enjoy tremendous support from our thriving parent group, Anderson Family Partners. The members, who represent the majority of families we serve, provide advocacy, peer support, and fundraising activity all of which help the organization continue to provide the highest quality services to their loved ones. It’s truly an instrumental partnership between Anderson and our engaged families, that rounds out the entire experience for the children and adults we serve, and their families,” says Bozenski.
Enrollment and other details
The Staatsburg location houses the children’s educational and residential program, and administrative offices. It serves 138 children ages five-21 on its main campus. Residential students account for 124 of those individuals while 14 are day students who attend the Anderson Education Center Monday through Friday.
The residences tap into personal preferences, enabling residents to select their own paint colors and bring in their own furniture from home.
Anderson also operates 23 other adult group homes throughout Dutchess, Ulster, and Orange Counties. In addition, it operates four LifeLong Learnings Centers in Dutchess and Ulster counties. Here, adults receive instruction, but these locations also serve as home-bases for participants as they volunteer and engage in community opportunities. These include managing the greenhouse at Indoor Organic Gardens of Poughkeepsie and volunteering at Hudson River Housing where janitorial and custodial services are provided.
As for enrollment, applicants must be referred, typically by their school districts, for residential or day placement. Referrals hail from all over New York State as well as other states nationwide. Occasionally referrals come from other countries. Rolling admissions enable people to apply at any time. The application process involves a paper review, parent and student interviews, tours, and communication about each potential candidate.
Beyond local initiatives, the organization operates Anderson Center International (ACI) – a 12 to 18 month intensive, highly interactive, capacity-building training program for fellows who hail from countries worldwide. According to Global Autism Project, eighty-five percent of people with autism reside in developing countries where resources are scarce. Via ACI, it aims to contribute to global efforts to reduce disparity and elevate quality of life.
“We strive to achieve this objective by increasing our efforts to open opportunities for qualified applicants from developing countries. We’re also reaching out to relevant governments in the home countries of the applicants to facilitate connection and dialogue, and to foster cooperation and support. We already have historical evidence that this approach is exceedingly effective and efficient,” reveals Dr. Sudi Kash, chief clinical officer of the Anderson Center for Autism.
As for the future, the visionaries at Anderson yearn to continue efforts toward evolving the organization into a national Autism Recourse Center. Its goal is to become the agency that people go to for support or to learn how communities can support the growing number of individuals with ASD.
To learn more about the Anderson Center for Autism, you can visit their website at www.andersoncenterforautism.org