Connecting communities: Ascendigo raises the bar for Roaring Fork Valley residents with autism |

Connecting communities: Ascendigo raises the bar for Roaring Fork Valley residents with autism

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Tyler, who participates in the adult Life Enrichment Program through Ascendigo smiles while riding a horse at Wind Walkers in Carbondale on Tuesday.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

The color-coded schedules might seem like those of any other millennial: report for work at 9 a.m., computer class at 11 a.m., lunch with friends, exercise in the form of skiing or rock climbing or horseback riding in the afternoon, chores to wrap up the day.

But for young men like Bill, Zach, Tyler and Kevin, this daily routine is an accomplishment — every day.

The “guys,” as everyone seemingly refers to them, are part of Carbondale-based Ascendigo Autism Services’ Life Enrichment Program, a residential program that strives to improve basic life skills — social, vocational, daily living and athletic skills — for adults with autism. It is just one program Ascendigo offers in its efforts to bridge the gap between the local community and the autistic community.

“There was a time people approached autism from a deficit perspective. Now, we approach it from the opposite side — what can this community give back to us?” said Peter Bell, president and CEO of Ascendigo Autism Services, noting the nonprofit’s other programs include winter and summer adventure camps, school outreach and more. “We want the community to accept everyone for who they are, and empower them to do all they can to live their lives to the fullest.”

On a recent morning, Zach is unstacking chairs at Phat Thai in Carbondale, while just down the road at Marble Distillery, Bill is wiping down tables. Both men have a coach with them and, with plenty of training under their belt, they are being paid for their work.

Communicating via iPad, Zach said the paycheck is the best part of the job. With his earnings he likes to buy beads, which he said are “his love; I like how they move.”

A New Jersey native, Zach also loves to ski and be outdoors: “It’s why I moved here!”

Bre Millspaugh is Zach’s case manager and beams with pride watching Zach communicate with others. He has come a long way since his first day with Ascendigo. Her goal is to work herself “out of a job” by helping people such as Zach continue to be independent.

The goal of connecting these autistic members of the community with other community members permeates the Life Enrichment Program.

At WindWalkers equine therapy center, participants care for animals; on the ski hill, they learn to follow directions and about the importance of being physically active; at the “Yellow House,” where they live together in a supervised setting, they learn daily chores and follow a daily routine.

Ascendigo has the “Red House” for more independent people living with autism and is looking to purchase a third house, to be called the “Purple House.”

“It is amazing to see the progress the guys have made by being in this program,” said Susan Linden, marketing director for Ascendigo. “These young men, and all the young people in our programs, are so special and unique. It’s hard to explain how wonderful it is to see them thriving … to be constantly learning and growing.”

That morning at Marble Distillery, Bill was with his case manager Rob Smith. Bill’s physical expressions make him seem nervous to visitors, but his rapid-fire questions say otherwise.

“What’s your last name?” he says, before turning to someone else. “What’s your last name? What do you do? And you?”

A few hours later at WindWalkers, Kevin and Tyler are riding around the indoor ring; at the end of the ride is a mailbox. Inside, a Valentine’s Day card awaits. A big smile takes over his bright face as he waves the card in the air.

Human nature — for those on the autism spectrum and for those who are not — is the same. We all want to connect with others and live a fulfilling life.

“Every time Zach smiles, even just a little bit, I smile,” Millspaugh said. “I think we all do. It’s a pretty powerful thing to know you’re making a real difference in someone’s life and, at the end of the day, they are making a real difference in our lives.”

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