Autism Awareness Month brings services to forefront

  • More than half of the nearly 90 students at the Crotched Mountain School in Greenfield have an autism diagnosis. The school is home to both day students and year round residents, who not only work on important academic skills, but also daily living skills and take part in therapeutic recreation and work in the community. Courtesy of Crotched Mountain—

  • More than half of the nearly 90 students at the Crotched Mountain School in Greenfield have an autism diagnosis. The school is home to both day students and year round residents, who not only work on important academic skills, but also daily living skills and take part in therapeutic recreation and work in the community. Courtesy of Crotched Mountain—

  • Crotched Mountain Foundation opened its first Ready, Set, Connect center for children with autism in the fall of 2011. Since, they opened a second location in Manchester and have a plan in place to open another in Greenfield should the need arise. Courtesy of Crotched Mountain—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/3/2019 11:45:28 AM

There’s an essay that Linda Quintanilha thinks every parent should read after an initial autism diagnosis.

Quintanilha should know, she’s lived through it.

The essay’s called “Welcome to Holland,” and was written in 1987 by American author and social activist Emily Perl Kingsley, about having a child with a disability. The way Quintanilha described it, when you embark on the journey of having a baby, it’s like planning your dream vacation to Italy. You’ve waited all your life for this moment, but when you find out that your child has a disability, it's the equivalent to having your plane land in Holland instead. The experience is still incredible, the memories will last a lifetime, but it’s just not what you envisioned. 

“It’s just as beautiful, just different,” Quintanilha said.

Tuesday, April 2 is Autism Speaks’s 12th annual World Autism Awareness Day. People around the world mark the day, April 2, be wearing light blue to help bring awareness about autism. It’s part of the greater Autism Awareness Month that extends throughout April, thanks in part of the Autism Society’s launch of a nationwide effort to promote autism awareness nearly 25 years ago.

When her middle child Mary was diagnosed, Quintanilha, who is ConVal’s School Board representative from Bennington, could have felt sorry for herself and mourned what could have been for her second born, but instead she chose to fight, to make the system work for her and became an advocate for families like hers.

All her life, Quintanilha said, society taught her that disabilities were a weakness. That as the parent of children with autism, hers were broken. But that is far from the case. Mary, currently a freshman at ConVal, brings so much to their family and Quintanilha wouldn’t change her life for the world.

“It’s part of who she is,” Quintanilha said. “She’s remarkable in so many ways.”

Over the years, people have said to the effect, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’

“I don’t know any different and this is my beautiful journey,” Quintanilha said.

It’s not always easy, but the same can be true for any parent, she said.

“Autism is a gift and it might not be the path you chose, but it’s a path that should be cherished,” Quintanilha said. “What you will learn about yourself and what you value will inevitably change and your family will be better for it.”

There are children like Mary who can thrive in a public school setting, but for others with autism, because of various needs, they require a different approach to education. That’s where the Crotched Mountain School in Greenfield can help.

Crotched Mountain has just shy of 90 students and over 50 percent of them have an autism diagnosis, according to Dennis Bradley, director  of behavioral science.

Students are primarily from New Hampshire, but come from across New England and as far away as Colorado and California. About two-thirds of the students live on campus year round. Referrals come from doctors and parents, as well as school districts, for students who need a more specialized environment that can’t always be found in their schools.

The students range in age from 6 to 21, and the end result for each one is the same.

“Our goal is to get them back into their home school district,” Bradley said.

“The younger they are, the more likely they are to leave before they age out of school,” said David Johnson, vice president of marketing and communications at Crotched  Mountain Foundation.

For some though, their challenges are so profound that they may spend the remainder of their school years at Crotched  Mountain, Johnson said.

When a student is referred to Crotched Mountain, there is, of course, necessary paperwork, but the placement decision all comes down to one thing.

“We want to make sure the student fits with what we’re doing so they can succeed,” Johnson said.

There are individualized plans created for each student and there’s an emphasis on academic skills like reading, writing and math, but there’s a daily living skills component as well. Some students also need help with communication and socialization.

“It’s those skills you don’t typically learn in school or at least are not directly taught to you,” Bradley said.

Students take part in therapeutic recreation like hiking, swimming, kayaking, cycling and skiing. They work rotating jobs for Meals on Wheels, at Monadnock Community Hospital and at Crotched Mountain’s farm school.

“It’s to give these students new experiences and build on those skills,” Johnson said. “These are students that we feel can really add so much in the community.”

A lot of the work with students is done one on one within the classroom setting, and after school, for those who live on campus, they participate in activities like yoga, dancing, basketball and soccer.

In the fall of 2011, Crotched Mountain started Ready, Set, Connect, in Concord, which provides group-based Applied Behavior Analysis therapy for children with autism. The services are geared toward children ages 2 to 6, and are funded by insurance. Since then, Crotched Mountain opened another center in Manchester and has the groundwork done for another in Greenfield, but the need just hasn’t been there to get it off the ground.

Since Crotched Mountain is known for its work with children with autism, Johnson said he gets a lot of inquiries.

“Something we see a lot of is ‘My child has been recently diagnosed, what do I do next?’” Johnson said. It’s all part of being considered a go-to resource in the community, he said.

When it comes to autism services in the area, Touchstone Farm in Temple offers a unique option. Its therapeutic riding and driving program gives not only children, but also adults with autism, an opportunity to spend an hour a week with a horse. Pam Falkins, lesson program coordinator at Touchstone Farm, likes to pick one horse for a person to use for the entire 10-week program (although many go for much longer) because as time goes on, she can see a bond forming.

Participants brush their horse, providing sensory benefits through the feel of different textures. They put on the saddle and bridle.

They learn to ride at a trot, make correct turns and go over obstacles. For those that prefer not to ride, there is a driving part of the program.

“That can be just as beneficial as riding,” Falkins said.

Falkins said it’s important to note that although the program is an authorized instructor certification center for both carriage driving and riding programs through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, the instructors are not therapists.

“It’s through the horse that the therapy happens,” Falkins said. “There’s many life lessons in horses.”

The program is open to children as young as four and is offered to any adult, with many participants coming through referrals.


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