James Dickson, middle, poses for a family photo on the edge of his trampoline with his brother Louis, left, and Babette, his mom.

Photo by John F. Russell

James Dickson, middle, poses for a family photo on the edge of his trampoline with his brother Louis, left, and Babette, his mom.

Quilt of services: Changing landscape for children with autism

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James Dickson, middle, poses for a family photo on the edge of his trampoline with his brother Louis, left, and Babette, his mom.

Quilt of services

From horseback riding to gardening and therapy to skiing, Northwest Colorado offers a patchwork of programs to help individuals with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities work on social cognition, communication, life and work skills.

When Babette Dickson moved to Steamboat Springs in 1997, it was a much different place for families with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

Dickson’s son James, 16, first was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when he was about 3 years old.

On a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the most severe symptoms, Dickson ranked James at about six and said his language abilities are most affected.

From 1997 to the early 2000s, she said, there was little support for children with autism.

“The landscape has changed in 12 years in a very, very positive way,” Dickson said.

But now, James has reached the age where there is once again a gap in the services Dickson wants and needs for her son.

Between therapy for younger children and adult services through Horizons Specialized Services, it’s hard for Dickson to get the speech therapy she said James needs.

James started speech therapy at a young age, she said, but has not needed as much occupational or physical therapy.

“He’s extremely able in the body,” Dickson said.

James started skiing with the STARS adaptive sports program and now has progressed to where he prefers to ski faster and on his own. He participates in the program’s summer outings and loves water sports.

Dickson also praised the program at Humble Ranch and said how great hippotherapy and time with the horses has been for James. In the summer, he loves to golf and can drive a ball 280 yards. He’s been know to make some birdies, as well, Dickson said.

But it’s finding a speech therapist for him that continues to be a challenge.

“It’s a disaster,” Dickson said. “We need to attract an extremely good service provider.”

It’s a specialized job that takes a sharp person, she said, adding that the smaller population of Steamboat and the individuals who need the services could make it harder to retain top therapists.

Dickson is a teacher at Steamboat Springs High School, and for the first time, she has James in one of her classes.

“It’s an amazing insight from a teacher point of view,” she said. “It’s amazingly enlightening to be able to observe my child in my classroom.”

Dickson said her next crusade is to push for more inclusion of individuals with disabilities across the community.

She said Steamboat Springs High School has a program that pairs peers with special education needs and those without.

“We have a few high school students who are interested in that,” she said. “It’s not easy for a young, typical, 16-year-old to include James.”

Dickson said a former student of hers who was paired with a peer and helped the high school’s maintenance man was delighted by the experience, but it’s a slow process.

“He learns by looking and modeling,” she said about James. “I would like to see way more inclusion in everything … and I say that because now my kid is 16, and I’m wondering what’s going to happen when he’s 21.”

Dickson said her hope for James is for him to be accepted in the community where he lives and find a job where he’s respected. Those opportunities present themselves through including children and young adults with disabilities in typical activities and situations.

Now, they’re trying to work on James’ strengths rather than fix what’s broken, Dickson said. He’s an amazing artist, she said, and has a talent for woodcarving. He participated in the Community Cultivation horticulture work program through Yampa Valley Autism Program, and although he wasn’t as interested in the garden, James took to the task of selling the produce at the Mainstreet Farmers Market, Dickson said.

He would wave and call people toward the booth, she said, and he was excited to be there.

“He has his own way to communicate with us and get our attention.”

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206, email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @MLSchrantz

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