Sunday, November 14, 2010

Autistry Studios in California offers programs for autistic teens

From Patch in San Rafael, Calif.:

As many parents do in preparation for bringing their child to daycare, Janet Lawson brought her son, Ian, to the doctor for a checkup.

"The doctor said, 'Your son is healthy but you do realize he's autistic?'" said Janet Lawson as she recounted the day she discovered her son's condition.

From the time of diagnosis onward, Lawson and her husband, Dan Swearingen, both Bay Area natives, began to nurse Ian's special needs to help him become higher functioning. They began learning as much as they could about Autism Spectrum Disorder and enrolled him in special programs for kids with autism.

As he got older, said Lawson, Ian became verbal and progressed developmentally, and continued special programs. But then she became aware that there were no programs for autistic teenagers in the area.

"There was a moment when I thought, 'Oh my gosh what are we going to do? There aren't any programs for young adults with autism!' So, we decided to create a program we wished existed for our son," said Lawson.

The married couple of 20 years built their own facility for autistic teens, called Autistry Studios, in a small barn behind their Corte Madera home.

With plans to expand the program to more than 60 students by next year, the 250 square-foot barn just wasn't sufficient in space anymore, said Swearingen.

Fast forward two and a half years and that small barn gave way to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 37 Duffy Place in San Rafael that the company moved into on Nov. 1.

Autistry Studios, which operates as a non-profit, now serves 22 people with ASD ranging in age from 13 to 42. Ian, who also attends Redwood High School, still attends the workshops and has been speaking for a long time, said Lawson.

Considering the current number of kids born on the autism spectrum, Swearingen said people from all over the country are looking at the program as a model for others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, about one in 110 kids on average have ASD in the United States.

"When I was a kid, there weren't any autistic kids. Now we fill high school classrooms with them," said Swearingen.

After his son was diagnosed, Swearingen himself learned he had Asperger's syndrome, a variety of autism at the very high functioning end of the spectrum.

"I was basically smart, but weird," said Swearingen of his childhood in San Francisco.

Swearingen went on to get a bachelor's and master's degree in physics and was a Ph.D. candidate in astrophysics at Indiana University before committing to a programming job back in San Francisco.

Swearingen now works at Autistry Studios full time while his wife still splits her time between her private psychotherapy practice and the program.

Swearingen admits he isn't a good example of a person with Asperger's syndrome anymore because he has spent his life addressing and working to correct some of the shortcomings that plague people with the condition, including poor social and communication processing skills.

Nonetheless, Swearingen, a self-proclaimed "Aspie," a term commonly used in the autism community, knew firsthand that people with autism can learn, but need to be constantly challenged in a way that is conducive to the way they process information.

One example of how a person on the spectrum learns is through images not words, said Swearingen.

"Cue cards are useless because the words mean nothing to them," said Swearingen. "They think in pictures and sounds."

With special pedagogical strategies, autistic people of all ages can learn, said Swearingen.

Even the non-verbal older students in their 30s and 40s, who were previously grouped with the developmentally disabled in daycare centers, are able to learn new skills.

"The ability to learn and progress is a constant throughout their lifetime," said Swearingen. "If you keep pushing them, they keep learning. So we keep pushing them."

The program consists of six, four-hour workshops and are limited to no more than four students at a time.

"We find they get really good social traction that way," said Swearingen.

The workshops, which are conducted by four teachers including Lawson and Swearingen, are broken up according to the student needs based on two criteria: age and verbal ability. The students who are verbal and about the same age are grouped into one workshop and students who are non-verbal and more or less age peers are grouped into another, said Swearingen.

Depending on the workshop, students work on everything from stop motion animation films to designing dioramas that express various themes in their own lives. Autistry Studios also offers college support groups that both helps the students get into college and deal with workload.

"Many programs (for autistics) look at recreation with the idea: 'how can we keep them busy' as opposed to our program, which challenges them mentally, " said Lawson.

At Autistry Studios, students work with their hands to create projects that fulfill their desires to express themselves emotionally. They also learn some good problem-solving skills, said Swearingen.

"We don't do macaroni art here. Everything they do has a story. There is a whole world behind every scene," said Lawson.

In the beginning of the new year, Lawson and Swearingen plan to start a spinoff business of Autistry Studio's called Autistry Graphics, which will offer top-quality design services by utilizing skills that some of its students have honed at the program's workshops.

"That's our challenge: to help them to develop their abilities to make them as independent as they can be," said Lawson.

The goal, said Lawson, is to provide training, internships, employment and job placement in the real world for students.

Sir Francis Drake High School student, Ryan McCarty (pictured) , 15, of Greenbrae takes one class at Autistry Studios during the weekend. McCarty, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, feels the new space is creatively liberating.

"I like the fact you can take on any building project you like and really explore your interests here," said McCarty. "The new space is so much bigger than the barn."

Ryan's mother, Laura McCarty said, "I think it's the best thing to happen to my son in his teenage years. They're filling a need for spectrum teens that needed to be filled. "

"When I first brought Ryan here he said, 'Mom, they really get me.' And after that I was sold," said McCarty.