Sallie Bernard: Taking a closer look at autism |

Sallie Bernard: Taking a closer look at autism

Sallie Bernard
Guest Commentary

Autism is in the news, in popular culture and in our communities.

Autism affects 1 in 68 children, and the numbers are growing. More than 200 of our local children are estimated to have autism. Autism touches all socio-economic levels, races and ethnicities. More boys are affected — for every girl, four to five boys will be diagnosed.

Adults also have autism. While 10 to 15 percent of children receiving an autism diagnosis will outgrow it, the vast majority of autistic children become autistic adults.

My organization, Ascendigo Autism Services, supports children and adults with autism throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. We invite the wider community to take a closer look at autism. People with autism are a vital part of our community. Their success requires some extra support, but the rewards justify the effort.

Autism is primarily defined by poor social skills and an increased focus on routine and special interests. Autism usually comes with a wide spectrum of other features, from cognitive differences and altered sensitivity to sound, light or other sensory stimulation, to difficulty with verbal communications and emotional regulation. Severity ranges from mild to life-altering. Some will have intellectual disability; others will make the honor roll. An individual may be severe in some features but mild or moderate in others. The upshot is no two people with autism are alike. Scientists now talk about “autisms” and autism heterogeneity, rather than a single entity of “autism.”

The range of consequences of having autism is wide. At one end, when features are mild, people with autism are barely noticeable, as they often drive a car, attend college, hold a job, have relationships and can generally get along well in the world. Yet they might still need understanding and slight accommodations. At the other end, when many features of autism are severe, individuals cannot operate on their own. They will need intensive and specialized 24/7 care.

Autism defies simple generalizations — except one: The potential of far too many autistic people is being squandered. How much do we really know about autistic people and their abilities? Autistic capabilities are underestimated when expectations are low and the resources for support are absent. When the focus is on leveraging abilities and putting in place supports to work around limitations, achievement happens.

At Ascendigo, we look at the whole individual and create a web of supports that fit that individual. A preschooler was having difficulty following the teacher’s direction. Our therapist provided strategies for classroom setup. Science is showing people with autism have heightened emotions but can’t express them. We instituted poetry classes for clients to write about inner feelings. Some local moms wanted their children to learn to ski. We now provide skilled ski buddies so these kids can join their peers on Saturdays with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.

The foundation for these successes are our local businesses and organizations. Phat Thai restaurant, Sopris CrossFit, Sustainable Settings, the Aspen Art Museum, AVSC, Aspen Skiing Co., Bonfire Coffee Shop, Hickory House, Glenwood Adventures and more have all opened their doors so the magic can happen.

Chelsie Zoller, the general manager at Phat Thai, where Ascendigo clients learn vocational skills, has this to say: “Their dependability and consistency is something we have really come to rely on. The work they do helps us stay organized and neat, keeping the restaurant looking its best. Because of their autism, they often see things we don’t and their attention to detail has really helped us fill some gaps in our daily and weekly cleaning tasks as well as contributing to our overall appearance as a restaurant.”

It is a myth that people with autism don’t seek friendships, can’t learn, or aren’t concerned with their own success. Their life trajectories might seem different — the world is built for everyone else — but with a closer look you’ll find achievement.

On Saturday, Ascendigo will host Light It Up Blue Aspen, a benefit to shine a light on autism. It features an evening of delectable food and beverages, live auction and concert with Black Pistol Fire at the Belly Up Aspen. Special guests Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and TV personality/attorney/autism activist and mom Areva Martin join actress Cheryl Hines, Dr. Jennifer Berman of “The Doctors,” Chris Davenport and more. Come and help keep our programming alive! For tickets, visit

Also on Saturday, Vertical Blue for autism awareness takes place at Aspen Highlands. Through another community partnership with Ms. Kate Korn’s Aspen Elementary fourth-grade class, students created autism fact signs, which will be posted throughout the ski area. The class developed a bookmark with the facts and some tips like how to be a better friend especially to someone with autism, which we will hand out along with other prizes. Why did Ms. Korn’s class do this? They have a classmate with autism, and they chose to take a closer look.

Sallie Bernard is founder and president of Ascendigo Autism Services, a Carbondale nonprofit serving children and adults with autism locally and nationally. You can reach her at


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