Nina has autism, sits in a wheelchair, likes to ask a lot of questions, and likes metal bands. When I entered the Fresh Start School, she was with her nurse at a table drawing. She was curious about who I was and baraged me with questions, sometimes asking the same one twice.
The Focus Center for Autism’s Fresh Start School for students age 11 and up is located in a small house with a loft for their administrative offices in Canton, CT.
“A lot of our students were bullied and never had friends. They come with trauma and it takes time to undo it,” said Lauren Gardner, their Autism Service Coordinator.
The Fresh Start School is a safe place for children and teens on the autism spectrum, with school phobias and anxieties to learn to overcome these challenges.
“The school is essentially a social incubator, a safe space for them to learn to trust us. We meet them where there at,” said Gardner. At Fresh Start, students are introduced to milieu therapy where the children’s social environment is controlled in order to prevent self-depstructive behavior.
Students like Dillion, who was out sick when I visited, had recently gone on live television channel Fox 61 with Donna Swanson, the executive director of the Focus Center to spread awareness for the school and for their Stand By Me fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 by December 31. The Focus Center has been in existence since 2001; the school has been around for 16 years but recently became recognized as a state approved special education school in 2016. The Center and the School are a non-profit. Most of their funding is through donations, and municipalities pay the School per child that needs services. The campaign got its name from the song that students graduating sang “Stand By Me.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“This school understands me,” said Dillion. “When I first came to the school, I was the equivalent of trying to build the Empire States Building out of toothpicks.” Now, he’s speaking on live television.
With a motto on their web site and literature worded as “because the creatively wired and socially challenged should not have to go it alone,” the school is a welcome refuge for these types of students helping them make progress on their issues so they can get a job, attend college and lead productive lives. When students with autism or other challenges reach age 21 and beyond, there are limited resources to help them adapt to the world around them which can move at a frentic pace and serve to over-stimulate them.
The school’s mission is for students to achieve their fullest potential whatever that is through giving them coping skills, social skills, and life skills. Their goal is to reintegrate the children back into the public school system. Starting at 8:15 am and going through to 2:45 pm, the students have a full day of art, physical exercise, and science, math, English, and history. Students come from all over Connecticut so while everyone is waiting for children to arrive they socialize and have mindfulness meditation sessions. They also offer career transitioning for older students, as they have students ages 10-19. Classes are small with 3 to 6 students and are based on academic levels.
One of their successes is Alex, an 18-year-old, who just got a job at Give Coffeehouse in Canton. Alex does well in English, film and art but not math. He may have the opportunity to learn about television equipment through an internship with Nutmeg Community television. Nutmeg television is one of the many local businesses who have partnered with the School. Just yesterday, the School had a meeting with Nutmeg about creating a t.v. show. Plans are in the works.
Alex participated in the Spectrum UnPlugged panels created to raise awareness about what goes on in the School and with the students. The panels talk to parents to teach them how to understand their children on the spectrum. The panels have parents, students, and alumni of the School on them. At first, public speaking was difficult and overwhelming for Alex but with people he knew from school present in the room he felt more comfortable.
In public school, Alex’s anxiety was misread as oppositional behavior. “He’s actually a sweet kid,” said Gardner. “A lot of people misread students as rude because they are unaware of autism.”
“Alex has grown from a shy, reserved kid into someone who mentors others new to School,” Gardner said. Gardner has a Bachelors in Social Work and has been at the School for nine years, the last three as a full-time employee. She began as a volunteer. She does everything from assisting in the classroom, fund development and marketing.
“When Dillion came to us, he wanted to be alone in a room with his laptop and piano keyboard,” said Meaghen Harris, an LCSW and Director of Educational Services at the School. “Our program is unique. We can be flexible.”
Dillion who came to the School with a high IQ but the emotional intelligence of a 3-year-old, progressed amazingly. He’s now in 11th grade and making television appearances with Focus Center’s executive director Donna Swanson.
“I can see him going on to college. He’s talented with computers and codes pieces of art on his calculator,” said Harris. “He has a lot of phobias and has come a long way with those as well.”
One of Dillion’s phobias is the foam on hot cocoa but he’s working through it and in a really good place.
“He’s started to befriend new students with the same struggles. He recognizes himself in them and goes out of his way to be kind,” said Harris.
The School has a student who speaks in television and movie scripts, especially Disney and a student who writes numbers over and over to calm down. He’s gone from 0 to 25,000. The School meets the students where they are and uses their special interests and talents to help them integrate into the world. “No one judges them here,” said Harris.
“With kids with autism, their progress is not linear. There maybe a lot of progress, then a backslide. You have to have patience,” said Gardner.
The School’s alumni are a close knit group. Some are even in a band together. One student even wrote and published a book about gaming.
The Stand By Me fundraiser is trying to reach over $100,000 by December 31 of this year. If you would like to contribute to the Stand By Me campaign, read more about the Center and School on their blog and web site, and check out their other social media, go to http://focuscenterforautism.org. You can also donate to the campaign by liking them on Facebook. Their Facebook address is http://www.facebook.com/FocusAutism/.
“With the capital means behind us, if we can do a little, imagine what we can do with a lot,” said Gardner.
According to Donna Swanson, executive director of the Focus Center for Autism, Nina, the girl written about at the beginning of this story, stood up and sang at the graduation ceremony and did a choreographed step. “There wasn’t a dry eye,” she said.
“We need the community to stand by us,” said Swanson. “We have gone so far with no state support just through donations and grants. That’s why this fundraising drive is so important.”
1 in 59 children have autism, four times more likely in boys. No two people with autism are alike, but they all have anxiety in common.