by Anne Pyburn Craig
Possibly the most central truth in all of education is that one size does not fit all. Even within the parameters of the standard public school classroom, educators get good results only when they recognize the fact that there are multiple intelligences leading to multiple learning styles, and that there really is no such thing as a “typical” child.
And even in the current era of mainstreaming of students with disabilities, not every child is best served by that standard classroom. Families of children who are on the autism spectrum or otherwise neuro-divergent can find it a daunting struggle to get school districts to provide the best possible education, even with the best possible will on all sides, backed up by the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Enter the specialists. Hudson Valley area families are fortunate in that the area has a range of expert agencies and educational facilities with collective centuries of experience in educating students who need extra supports. It’s a big job, and over the past several decades, the people doing it have expanded their offerings in response to client and community needs. These are much more than just schools.
Take Abilities First. Founded in Poughkeepsie in 1962 as The Little Red Schoolhouse, the agency now operates universal pre-K classrooms in the Hyde Park school system, two dedicated preschool sites, and education for students aged 5 to 21 at both its own sites and in satellite classrooms in Red Hook public schools.
Students at Green Chimneys learn about plants from seed to
harvest. Photo courtesy of Green Chimneys.
But all of that schooling is still just part of a larger picture of ongoing support and community involvement. “As the individuals requiring our services continues to increase, so have the breadth of programs to meet their needs,” says Abilities First Chief Enhancement Officer Melissa McCoy. “AF has eight divisions supporting all stages of life: Pre-School, School, Social Work & Service Coordination, Residential Services, Community Habilitation, Work Training Center, and Integrated Employment Services.
“The rapidly changing landscape of the industry is far from what it was in 1962. There is a growing demand for the community to be educated, welcoming and supportive of the integration of these individuals into our communities.”
Abilities First uses the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children) program developed at the University of North Carolina Medical School, which focuses on “flexible and person-centered support of individuals of all ages and skill levels.” In the TEACCH approach, instructors strive to meet individuals on the spectrum where they live, comprehending the “culture of autism,” and designing individual- and family-centered supports within the environment that foster comprehension and connection.
The Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg, which recently celebrated 90 years, utilizes the Applied Behavioral Analysis techniques in its classrooms rather than the TEACCH approach. But here too, creative programming that has developed to meet this demand takes varied forms. “There’s a tremendous amount that goes into this,” says Eliza Bozenski, director of the Anderson Foundation for Autism, the center’s outreach affiliate. “Being on the spectrum is not something that goes away when people turn 21, and many graduates of our children’s program need further support and placement. We serve a lot of people who are very challenged, but have a lot to offer. When people take the time to care, to get to know them, the world opens up and the passion comes out.
“One in 68 children are affected by autism spectrum issues, and that’s a lot of people. Often, the way individuals and communities best deal with that is simply by doing the right thing.”
The right thing is multifaceted, and begins with making safe spaces in the community for individuals whose social and communication styles vary widely. As autistic self-advocates have proven, behavioral quirks such as “stimming” (self-stimulating behavior such as hand flapping), low tolerance for chaos, or a difficulty with eye contact do not define an individual’s abilities or level of comprehension.
“It’s about lifelong learning, and there should always be a step toward the next level,” says Bozenski. “It’s not for us to say, ‘Here’s where you’ll stop.’ We have some individuals who started out with very basic culinary tasks and now volunteer at the Culinary Institute, and I can think of one in particular who just got formally hired.”
Another Anderson Center program, Expressive Outcomes, not only highlights the talents of autistic artists but serves as a great example of what can happen when the community takes that time to care. “That program was borne out of one parent of a young adult who enjoyed art, and she brought in her artist friends, and we had a beautiful day,” Bozenski says. “Everybody got really into it. Other parents and other artists started getting involved…Now our artists show in many galleries, and one in particular, the Pavel Zoubok gallery in Chelsea, hosts a dedicated show. It’s very well-attended, and many of our artists have sold work. We’re expanding on this, into music and dance.”
The intersection of arts education and special education is becoming nationally recognized for its promise. At a Kennedy Center conference on that intersection, held in 2012, parent Sari Hornstein described her experience of the effect of music and theater in her autistic son’s life as “nothing short of magical.”
Outdoor, animal-assisted, and horticultural education are other promising approaches to the goal of every individual leading the richest possible life. At Green Chimneys, a residential treatment center and school for children diagnosed with a variety of psychosocial challenges including autism spectrum conditions, ADHD, and mood dysregulation, human professionals have the assistance of over 300 farm animals, horses, rescued birds of prey, and other wildlife.
A student at Green Chimneys feeds a calf. Photo
courtesy of Green Chimneys.
“We work with the children in a multi-dimensional way, but what makes us very special is that we do a lot of nature-based activities, and we find that those are very helpful in getting these children back home to their families and communities,” says Green Chimneys’ Farm and Wildlife Center director Michael Kaufmann. “The animal is a personality in its own right, and brings its own emotional state into the picture, but in a different way than many humans do. There’s a cliché that animals are completely non-judgmental. We disagree: animals judge, but it’s not based on appearance, status, or conformity to external norms. If you behave yourself in their presence, they’ll accept you, which is what we tell the kids.
“A lot of the children we deal with have trouble with peer interactions; they may be emotionally fragile, very reactive, or explosive. At first a lot of them are fearful of the animals, while others have no boundaries and are completely fearless. But we’ve found that working with the animals is a fabulous transition to being able to relate to other beings across the board. We have a lot of human professionals at the core of our treatment, of course—animals don’t just magically heal—but as part of a larger treatment plan, it’s very effective.”
Green Chimneys also maintains the Clearpool Campus, a 350-acre woodland setting with a lake, marshes, streams, and wetlands where outdoor and wilderness programs take place. And students learn to grow their own in the school’s educational gardens, which include the Boni-Bel Organic Farm in Brewster: a two-acre organic garden, an orchard, and a greenhouse, which supply a seasonal farm stand and country store.
“Particularly with high-activity impulsive kids, working in the garden or greenhouse tones down the energy level a bit and teaches delayed gratification,” says Kaufmann. “If you take good care of a seed you plant in February or March, eventually you get a beautiful tomato—but it doesn’t happen overnight. The experience reframes time in a nature-centered way.”
Kaufman also serves Green Chimneys as director of their Sam and Myra Ross Institute, which carries out educational, advocacy and research activities centered on the interface between humans and the rest of the natural world. There’s a special education focus, but also a broader mission that encompasses everyone: the positive impacts of animal- and nature-based education in a wide variety of settings and on overall human and planetary health. At the institute’s biennial Human-Animal Interaction Conference, educators and professionals from around the world spend two days sharing best practices and ideas.
At the community level, outreach is key and can be as simple—and as complicated—as getting local businesses to host an autism-friendly dinner or a family movie night out. The Anderson Center hosts trainings for the business community in creating an autism-supportive environment. “Coppola’s Restaurant had us come and do a complete evaluation, and then a bunch of our families came out and ate there,” says Bozenski. “I know John and Luigi feel good about being part of the mission; I also know they have seen a sustained increase in business.
“We’ve stayed true to our mission to serve special needs, and it has taken us in a lot of directions,” she says. “A grandson of one of our original founders serves on the board, and he was our graduation speaker two years ago. He said he thought his grandfather would be very pleased.”