Ascendigo Autism Services launches training curriculum for community partners
Curriculum gives participants tools, skills and methodology to support people with autism
For more than a decade, the team at Ascendigo Autism Services in Carbondale has been thinking about ways to create a universal training program to help knock down the barriers of discouragement that so often stand in the way of community connection for people with autism.
“Really early on, we just kind of saw a void, we saw barriers for people with autism, to be integrated into the community,” said Mathew McCabe, now the director of curriculum and a lead trainer at Ascendigo. “If they would try to go to summer camp, if they would try to go to the rock climbing wall, oftentimes, it would fail, it wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t be set up for success, and these barriers would get in the way.”
A training program for the broader community outside of Ascendigo staff has been in development for at least 12 years, according to McCabe; that’s about as long as he’s been working for the organization. But his role as the director of curriculum and lead trainer is new — just about a month old — and the rollout of a widely applicable e-learning program and other training sessions for community partners launched right around the end of 2021, he said.
The idea behind the curriculum is it will help ensure that people with autism can thrive in the community and find encouragement and success in situations that could otherwise be sources of frustration.
“We set out to create training and learning tools, so that in a short amount of time, we could get anybody and everybody up to speed,” McCabe said.
That can mean places like the rock climbing wall or summer camp, sure, but also at school, or in an interaction with law enforcement, or out and about in the community; organizations like the Aspen School District, Carbondale Police Department and Valley Settlement all are on board.
“If they go to the rock climbing wall, and they have success, they’re more likely to try something else, right?” McCabe said. “And if it’s a major failure, then they kind of just retreat into their comfort zone, and they’re afraid to go out and try.”
Ascendigo applies a “person centered” philosophy that acknowledges each person with autism is just that — one person — while also aiming to make the curriculum applicable to all sorts of different situations and environments, McCabe said.
“There’s an old saying in the autism world that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. … What’s cool about what we teach is it’s very universal,” McCabe said. “Anything that I teach somebody on ways to connect with someone with autism, these same strategies work with everybody.”
The curriculum teaches tools and skills — using declarative statements rather than commands, for instance, or being considerate of tone and body language when communicating with someone with autism — as well as a methodology to apply those techniques.
“One of the rules that was given to us, and I thought this was so great, was ‘think A.U.T.I.S.M.’ … approach, understand, talk, instruct, seek and maintain,” said Carbondale Police Chief Kirk Wilson, whose department was the first law enforcement agency to take part in the Ascendigo training in a pilot program last year.
That training also gave officers insight on how some police tactics — arriving with lights and sirens to respond to a call, for instance, or using a hand to guide someone out of harm’s way — might not be a helpful approach when working with people with autism.
“They sought to understand: ‘Hey, what’s going on? What’s happening here?’” Wilson said. “They talked in a calm manner and just tried to settle in and show this individual, you know, we’re not at odds with each other. We’re on the same team.”
That conversation and understanding is as much a part of the training program as specific tools and techniques. Wilson and McCabe said the sessions have sparked thoughtful questions and conversation, and McCabe noted that it can help curb the apprehensions some people have about making missteps while working with people with autism.
Ascendigo’s vocational manager Jeo Mendez, who led a training for Spanish-speaking parents with the nonprofit Valley Settlement, echoed the sentiment. That session was an opportunity to address misconceptions about autism and inform people of what resources are available, Mendez said.
“Their life might look different than everybody else’s,” he said, “but there’s still a lot of resources, and there’s still a lot of ways that their child can live a fulfilled life.”
Acendigo’s annual fundraiser, Ascendigo Blue Aspen, scheduled for Saturday night is sold out. The online auction and a donation portal remain open at ascendigo.org/ascendigo-blue-aspen.
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