‘I just can’t believe how lucky we are’: Ascendigo outreach aids Aspen couple raising adopted children with autism

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
The Ayers family.
Katie J. Photography


What: Ascendigo Blue Aspen Benefit

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Hotel Jerome

For tickets and more information,

With all three of their children away at college, Steve and Jenny Ayers had finally reached the point in their lives where they could settle down and embrace their newfound freedom as empty nesters.

Instead of making plans to travel or retire, the longtime Carbondale couple decided to become foster parents, and wound up adopting two autistic baby girls.

“I just can’t believe how lucky we are,” Jenny Ayers said of being parents all over again to 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-olds, Ellie and Abigail.

Steve, 61, and Jenny, 46, say they are forever indebted to Ascendigo Autism Services, a valley nonprofit that’s played an instrumental role in their parenting journey.

On Saturday, Ascendigo will host its eighth annual benefit that seeks to raise awareness and critical funding to help assist and provide services to local families like the Ayers.

The past two benefits each generated nearly $500,000 for the nonprofit, Ascendigo President and CEO Peter Bell said, adding, “We’re well on our way” to reaching that amount this year.

About 25 percent of Ascendigo campers are able to partake in its programs because of “some sort of financial support raised from the benefit,” Bell said.

“We’re incredibly grateful to this valley and what they’ve been able to do for us.”

The organization defines autism as a “complex neurobiological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges.”

When the Ayers brought Ellie home from the hospital as her foster parents, the 3-month-old was malnourished, had been abused and had meth in her system.

Jenny and Steve, who works long hours as both an emergency physician at Aspen Valley Hospital and a coroner for Pitkin County, had planned to only be foster parents and not adopt any children.

But when Jenny first held Ellie in her arms, “There was no question — this was my baby.”

“I don’t know how else to put it.”

With a background in early-childhood education, and having also raised three non-autistic children, Jenny sensed something was different with Ellie at about 6 months.

A few months later, Ellie was diagnosed with autism, and the Ayers adopted her sister, Abigail.

Abigail spent her first years in a “meth motel” in Rifle and suffered many of the same issues as Ellie, in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, Jenny said.

For the first six to eight months, both babies “went to bed screaming every night,” Steve recalled.

After a taxing search for a doctor who could differentiate between PTSD and autistic symptoms in a baby, Jenny said, Abigail was diagnosed with both.

The causes of and cures for autism — the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world — are still unknown.

While Jenny believes her girls carried some genetic predisposition, she said facets of their former lives “didn’t help.”

“I find their situation is kind of the perfect storm … I don’t think it’s just one thing,” she said.

Through Ascendigo’s applied behavioral analysis therapy and outreach program, the Ayers have watched their little girls thrive.

Ellie and Abigail each spend 20 hours a week with a team of eight total Ascendigo staff members and therapists.

“Watching her personality that you didn’t know was there as a baby all of the sudden open up like a flower — it was amazing,” Steve said of Ellie’s progress. “We never knew she was sassy and witty and mischievous.”

One message Jenny hopes to spread is the level of misunderstanding involved with diagnosing children with autism.

“We had people, doctors, pediatricians, telling us our girls were fine,” Jenny said. “That’s the story of every parent — every parent has had to jump through hoops, I think, because autism is becoming so rampant.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with autism.

Raising awareness, along with providing scores of programming for children and adults, is a core part of Ascendigo’s mission.

“Ascendigo is so dependent on this community,” Bell said. “And when I say that, it is the community that’s opened up their arms and resources to help us in so many ways.”