Supporting Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Mariah Loftin, MA, LP, Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist - Young Adults Group at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy
Brenda Zane is a Sky’s the Limit Fund board member, Founder of Hopestream Community, and podcast host of Hopestream
About the episode:
Our guest, Mariah Loftin, Clinical Director at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, discusses how wilderness therapy can support an individual on the autism spectrum. She explains how they are able to thrive with the support of evidence-based treatment, an environment of neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals, a consistent structure while supporting the students to be able to respond to life’s unpredictabilities, and healthy living.
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Hello, welcome back to another Sky’s the Limit Fund’s Speaker Series podcast. We are here to bring you information about wilderness therapy about different types of wilderness therapy about different treatment modalities. And I’m Brenda Zane. I’m the board member, for Sky’s the Limit Fund who gets to talk with really incredible people have great conversations and bring you good solid information. Maybe you’re looking at wilderness therapy as a treatment for a young person in your life. Or maybe you have a child who’s in wilderness therapy right now. And you’re just trying to absorb as much information as possible. So we are here to do that for you. And we just want to thank all of the donors who make Sky’s the Limit Fund possible. We’re a nonprofit organization that helps families afford wilderness therapy, when it is a little out of reach, because it is a an expensive form of therapy. Unfortunately, insurance doesn’t always cover it yet. And so we’re just thrilled to be able to help families afford to send the young person to wilderness therapy and then on their return home support them as well with wraparound services once they’re back. So today, we have the honor of having Mariah Lofton with us. She’s the Clinical Director at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy. I’ve known Mariah for a couple of years between I think we did another episode here at sky’s the limit fund and then also just meeting at different conferences, well known in the industry, a wealth of information and one of the most loved therapists at Willard at Open Sky wilderness. So welcome Mariah, we’re gonna have a great conversation today about kids on the autism spectrum, and how autism spectrum disorder fits into wilderness therapy, which is such a great topic, because I think there is a lot of confusion about this. So welcome. Thank you for having me. Yes, it?
We were talking before we recorded that I hear a lot from parents. Oh, you know, I can’t send my kid to wilderness therapy because they are on autism spectrum, or they have autism spectrum disorder. And I would love for you to clear up for me how to use the right language around that because I feel like I’m probably not doing it right. But I think there is a misperception that it can’t work or that it’s not the right treatment modality. And so we’ll talk about that today, which I’m excited about. So first maybe just helped me clear up the language around this. So am I doing my saying that right?
Yeah, so an individual on the autism spectrum. And so I think a really important thing is that we start with the person first. Yeah, that is the best approach to anyone. There are so many people with different diagnoses. And so we just want to make sure that we’re tending to the person rather than the diagnosis first.
Okay. I love that it’s so similar to substance use an individual who struggles with substances or has substance use disorder. Okay, so thank you for that. Because I think that’s real language is really important for families. So you’ve been at Open Sky for a while, maybe just give us a quick background. I feel like everybody in this industry knows you. But I guess I shouldn’t make that assumption. So maybe just give us a quick intro, and then we’ll dive into all things. wilderness and autism.
Yeah, great. Well, so I’ve been at Open Sky for 11 and a half years, and I’ve been a clinician for 16. And one of the things that people may or may not know about me is that I have a long history of working with people on the autism spectrum prior to Open Sky. And so it’s one of my areas of expertise, as are many of the clinicians at Open Sky. So it’s something that I really value. And I lived with a young man with autism for about seven years, and the late 90s and early 2000s. And so I think I have a kind of different perspective from living with someone, and then also looking at behavior change and supporting growth. Now that that is really the emphasis is how do we support people growing and reaching their goals, regardless of or it may be in spite of their diagnoses?
Yeah, definitely. So I know that, you know, obviously, within the name is spectrum. So there’s obviously a wide spectrum. So maybe we could just start out by understanding, is wilderness therapy, an option for the entire spectrum? Or do you find that there’s sort of a sweet spot there that that is its most impactful for?
Absolutely. So I look at Autism Spectrum Disorder in kind of three categories, where in level of severity. And so if someone is struggling to tie their shoes and basics of self care, that would be someone that we would not be able to support, it wouldn’t be appropriate. And the kind of less significant issues, if there’s a way that people can communicate and be in relationship with others, we are a group environment. And inherent to having autism spectrum disorder, it can be difficult to attune to other people. That’s something that we can work with. And so I think, when we’re looking at basic basic levels of self care, and being able to be part of a group, rather than you have to have a one on one support every single second of the day, like we might need to have more support in a wilderness environment upfront, so someone can learn the skills, you know, so maybe fine motor skills are a little bit more difficult. And so if we can teach someone how to take care of themselves, and then that would be a question mark, you know, like, would this person actually be able to thrive here, because I have seen and work with so many different people on the autism spectrum, who thrive, you know, rather than just surviving, they’re actually able to thrive. That’s, that’s what we’re wanting. And the reason why is because in a wilderness environment, there is predictability from a social perspective, but also from a routine perspective. And there’s enough variation variation, that it challenges a person appropriately, who’s on the autism spectrum. So that’s kind of one part. And then from a social perspective, there is a enough predictability there, that a person can actually learn at a greater degree. Because someone will highlight, hey, I’m I want to have, I want to share what I’m feeling right now. So a person who might not be able to recognize social cues, will say, Oh, this is these are the indicators that tell me I need to pay attention. And so the amount of repetitions, both from a physical, emotional, and social place, they’re the amount of practice that someone’s able to get is incredible in a wilderness environment because of the staff to student ratio.
So help us understand. I know enough about autism spectrum disorder to be dangerous. So what I’m not I wanted, what I want to ask is, we’re not trying to cure anything. So what I kind of want to get at is, as a parent, if you if you’re listening, and maybe you have a child who qualifies. And you’re wondering, like what would be the goal, like what is the point of wilderness? And like, because I’m not trying to cure my child of autism spectrum disorder? So what would be a reason that a parent would have their child go to wilderness? Who does have it? That’s that’s a question that I would have.
Yeah, I think there is a skill development component that is so helpful. So how does someone learn how to take care of themselves, learn how to create routine for themselves. So then they’re able to go to college and implement generalize those same skills.And then we’re looking at from a social perspective, for them to learn how to ask questions to, to actually be able todeepen conversations or initiate conversations show up within an interview, show up at school with their classmates. So practicing very tangible things in the wilderness environment, and then being able to generalize them outside of Open Sky to a school or work environment. Yeah, that’s those are the goals that we’re looking to achieve.
Okay, that makes a lot of sense. I was just curious, because you’re I was trying to envision, like, what would be my impetus for for sending my child? I don’t have a child, you know, so I don’t, I don’t have that experience. But are there evidence based things that you’re using? It sounds like this is obviously an area that open sky has a lot of depth of experience in? What are some of those evidence based tools that you’re using when you have young people with you?
Well, it’s a specialty that we have it Open Sky, it’s so it is a kind of a piece of programming that we have have had and are deepening. And so I think the key here is that we want the our program to be based on evidence based methods, right? And so a CBT is one of the kind of common used modalities in working with individuals with autism spectrum. And so an example of that is if we have a student that is in the field, and they struggle with things like being too close to someone, or struggle identifying with what’s going on within a group, then what we can do is we can have that student be separate for the team for a bit and sitting with one of our guides this trained in this and say, Hey, what do you notice, right? Now? Here’s what I noticed, what do you notice and that that person can take notes more, and we can create goals based on the deficits that that person has, so that we can actually help them learn fill those deficits, so then they’re not no longer as pronounced. And I think another really big issue that can come up for a lot of people, and in particular for people on the autism spectrum is coping skills. So how do they actually deal with these emotions that are overwhelming. And so that’s more how does the student work with themselves. And we have mindfulness, that is a very evidence based practice that we use. And I think the way that we use it in the field is intentional and concrete, which can be much more suited to someone who has that way of thinking. So just making sure that we’re applying, like addressing the the skills that that person needs to develop. And so actually helping them consistently notice, am I anxious? Or am I overwhelmed? So there’s this idea of interoception? Are they aware of what’s happening inside of themselves, so identify it, and then practice responding to it. So they’re not constantly in reaction. And so that those are concrete things that we’re teaching and are really built into the foundation of what we do it opens guides in our, like, student pathway, and workbook and support. You know, the the individual is learning what they need, through repetition.
Yeah, well, sounds like a really safe environment to practice some of the, the stuff in where like you said, there are, there’s a lot of control, there’s a lot of knowns, there, there isn’t a lot of just incoming random, you know, life happening. So it seems like a almost like a Petri dish to say, Okay, we’re gonna practice this here. And we’re gonna practice that. I have a million questions, but one is, obviously open sky works with all kinds of young people. So is, is a young person with autism spectrum disorder in a in a group with only other kids with autism spectrum disorder, or is it is there commingling? Or how does that work?
Sure. I want I look at research, you know, and so when we’re referencing the National Autism Center, there is this reality that it is the best for individuals who are neurotypical and individuals who are neurodivergent. So those on the autism spectrum and those who are not to be in the same environment, because what it actually does for both, is it teaches all of us to pay attention to each other and more nuanced ways to support each other, and more nuanced ways. So when we’re looking at individuals on the spectrum, it’s actually I think, most effective to have them be with other individuals who do not have autism spectrum or neurotypical. And that allows them to develop their like so others will role model social interactions that are appropriate. So then someone can on the spectrum can pick up on those can identify what’s happening through repetition through that coaching. So we call it social coaching. And so then they can learn, oh, here’s some social scripts, here’s some things that I can do in these different situations, and use in the future.
Obviously, practicing like you talked about safety, having an emotionally safe group, where someone could say, I’m totally not getting what’s going on right now. Because there are four people talking in this group. And I can’t track it all can Can someone tell me what’s happening? So just even asking, like having this emotionally safe place that people can ask for the support that they need, ask for the clarification. And so that they practice socially, like another good example is when someone on the autism spectrum will interrupt or maybe talk about one topic again and again and again.
And so what their peer can do with some coaching, and because of that safe space, say, hey, I want to finish this conversation, or, Hey, I noticed that you keep talking about this same thing. Can you ask me a question about myself? Or can you I want to talk to you. And I want to talk about other things too. So that’s creating that social environment that is both safe for community connection, and feedback.
It also seems like it’s a great way for a neurotypical kid to start to have some empathy for somebody who isn’t like them, because I think we all get out into the world, whether that’s in college or the workforce, and we realize, oh, that person’s a little different, you know, and if they’ve had that experience, like you did, you said, you lived with somebody, all of a sudden, that doesn’t become as scary or as odd or as frustrating. If you’ve built that empathy, that empathetic muscle a little bit, you know, in a setting like that, to say, Oh, I see what this might be, and how to interact with that person would be really, really powerful.
Definitely, because we all need to actually learn how to be more supportive, be more attuned, that’s not just for someone on the autism spectrum, we all need to learn good communication skills, or better communication skills, we all need to learn how to attune to others who have different needs, that is the environment, the true real world environment that we live in. And so what we’re doing is we’re practicing it here, there are a variety of individuals with different diagnostic diagnostic profiles. And so what we’re doing is we’re actually learning how to be with each other in a really positive way, both in giving constructive and positive feedback, creating that safe space to be in community.
What are I’m curious, I think as parents, you know, who are probably mostly the ones listening, we always kind of want to be a fly on the wall. When our kids are in a in a setting like that, what are some of the things that you see happening in some of the kids who are there? I say, kids could be a young adult or an adolescent? What are some of the things that you see sort of happening to a young person on the autism spectrum, when they land in wilderness? And then as they start, you know, adapting day one, day five, day 14, what do you see, just because I think we’re also curious what that would be like,
Yeah, I love this process so much. And so when a student first gets here, that I think any parent who has a young person, a child with autism spectrum will know, changes in routine transitions, not so easy.That goes for a lot of young people. And it was a moment that’s part of life, like learning how to deal with transitions and shifts and changes. And it can be harder when a student versus two learners are appropriate, right. And so just knowing it’s going to be an adjustment for that person when they first arrive. And the key component is let’s get that young person connected as quickly as possible. So when we pair them up, not only with the staff, the field guys, but also with their peers, we have very clear directions of how they can get connected, what are elements that they can share very specifically with their peers, that allows them to get to know each other, what are specific questions that they can ask their peers. So that’s where we have specific programming or even developing it and even more, where we give students on the autism spectrum, very specific assignments for their brain, you know, for their brain and for their needs. Because those assignments might be different than for a person who is neurotypical. And so, I want you to ask this person this question, or let’s actually work together to create the questions that you want to ask to your different teammates. So getting to know everybody, that’s that, to me is step one, because it actually supports that person getting connected and adjusting to being in a new environment. And then a lot of one on one coaching and the first three weeks that a student is here, everything from how do you keep yourself warm, dry, fed, hydrated, to what’s the routine of a day of a week. And so we want to emphasize a lot of support upfront, because that allows someone to transition with more ease. And then we fade that support out both from peers and from guides and from therapists. So we fade that support out so then that individual so that student actually does it themselves. Because I don’t want no none of us want a person to be here and to be dependent on the program to actually be successful. Right. So that’s the fade out of support.
And then the exciting thing that I notice right around week 5,6,7, that there are enough repetitions that that person has had, both from a social perspective. So like I was saying before, there will be a peer that says, hey, I want to share what I’m feeling. So there are enough times of Oh, yeah, this is what you do. And this is what I can do, I want to share what I’m feeling. So there are enough times where they are learning to orient to somebody else, or learning to take care of themselves, that then there’s this kind of, I call them like lightbulb weeks, where, oh, this is what’s possible, I feel the difference, I feel the fact that I’ve been doing a mindfulness practice every single day, you know, I feel all of the psychoeducation starting to click, I feel the connection to the team. And now I’m able to actually teach other people how to do these skills that I struggled with in week one, two, and three. And so then there’s this confidence that starts to come to the surface of I can, and I can have something to offer to the world, I can actually show up to school, or if you know, for a young adult to work.
So that confidence that they can take these skills with them after graduation. That’s what we’re going for. So they’re more setup for life. Yeah, I can imagine just being a wilderness therapy parent myself with the child who, you know, had other issues.
To see the difference when you when you do get to see them either on a parent weekend, or if you aren’t making them up or whatever. It just has to be so satisfying for that child to show the confidence and the skills and all of that I’m just imagining that has to be a really rewarding moment.
I think it’s rewarding for the young person with themselves. And for the parents to see the big gains. As far as the progress that a person is able to make in a short period of time. You know, we’re talking about a pressure cooker of therapeutic learning. That’s the point. That’s what it’s all about for everyone. And so it can be intense, it’s supposed to be intense, that real life, there are unpredictable things that come in all over the place. And we have to teach, how do you deal with that? Yeah, so there might be changes in routine that we build in, so that we appropriately challenge someone, because life is going to have I call it Life is going to have curveballs. And so we might change the routine and hate we’re going to go on a harder expedition this week, or we’re actually not going to go on an expedition, it’s going to look this particular way, or we’ll shift up will, you know, leave a different day. And that case, so how are you going to respond to curveballs. So a person who’s on the autism spectrum, we might give more notice about that future information, so that there can actually be like a better preparation. So you know, I think curtailing our programming to each individual is really, really important so that we’re meeting their needs and supporting them growing ultimately, right.
Couple of just tactical questions. I’m putting myself in the parents standpoint, and I’m thinking my kid is glued to their phone or iPad, computer, YouTube all day, every day, can’t even fathom how I could send my kid to wilderness because they would like literally implode if they didn’t have their technology, what what would you say to me?
Welcome to the youth of today that there is actually like, a transition, because that can be an addictive technology can be addictive, right? It actually there’s research coming out about the impact of technology on individuals. And for those on the autism spectrum, specifically, that can be a point of connection. And what’s so incredible about being in a wilderness environment is that those points of connection are actually in person. So the point of connection in technology is not helping that person further. Being able to read social cues, being able to actually interact or be in an unpredictable group, right? Like it’s not actually teaching the skills
They’re not learning the skills because of that. And so being here, it their social needs are kind of met in a higher level. And there is a little bit of a detox. We call it a tech detox. Yeah, everyone goes through. Yeah. But it actually happens pretty quickly, you would be surprised because there’s so much use of technology. But then they’re actually filled up by the routine, by the amount of therapeutic groups that we’re having by the mindfulness and yoga practice that we’re doing by the exercise. You know, I think about it in a really like, overarching philosophy of Open Sky is what contributes to health, not just psychological health, right, we’re not just doing therapy, we’re not a bootcamp. The focus is holistic health, which includes mind, body, heart, soul. And so our focus is what are you putting into your body? Whether that’s technology, you know, so what are you putting into your mind? And so, we focus on healthy food.
There is not prepackaged process artificial foods here. You know, there’s, there’s, there are a lot of studies that are being done, but there’s one that came out in 2020, that suggests that unhealthy eating can actually exacerbate ASD symptoms. And the healthy diet that we have for students here that can actually reduce symptoms. So you know, when I think about technology, I just think about whole health. What are we what are we feeding ourselves both from a food perspective, but also from a input perspective?
Yeah, super important.Thank you for that. Another kind of tactical question is, my think my kids probably smoking a lot of weed because it helps him or her sort of lower the anxiety that they feel because they are somewhat different. How does that work with wilderness therapy in the autism and all of that, like? Sure. Talk about that a little bit? Yeah.
I think that there are ways people self medicate. And I’ll call them vices. And so that could be weed, that could be shopping or gambling, that could be scrolling through the internet. And it could also be food, right? So there are a whole variety, and many more that I haven’t named, that people are using these things to numb, avoid, distract. And what we’re doing here is we’re actually training people. Really, they’re training themselves through learning skills and having these experiences so that they can actually learn how to take a breath when they start to feel more anxious.
Notice that they’re anxious in the first place, and then what do you do about it? Taking a breath, I think is very simple. But having a set of things that you can do in order to calm down? Yeah, are you having a lot of anxiety and so you need to do a lot of things over the course of a day, a week, a month, to actually support yourself? You know, and so it’s, to me, it’s creating healthy habits, not just one healthy intervention. It’s not just one coping skill, it’s okay, so you have all of these coping skills that you’ve learned or, or techniques that you’ve learned, but are you using them? Are you creating a lifestyle that supports overall health? Like, I can’t tell you how many young people on the autism spectrum specifically that come in and they don’t eat vegetables? They’re specific textures that they struggle with? And they’re like, Absolutely not, by the time that they graduate, like, yeah, they were eating beets and kale and whole grains. And you know, if they’re not a vegetarian, they might have you know, like unprocessed meats that we have here, you know, so, and parents are astounded. Wait a minute, how did this happen?
Part of it is being in this environment where there’s positive peer pressure, you know, we are showing up for each other, so I don’t need to smoke weed. Yeah, I don’t need to avoid all these foods. I don’t need to isolate in my room, because I actually know how to deal with whatever it is that’s coming up in whatever situation that is coming at me.
Yeah, it’s the it’s so holistic. I’m glad that you walk through that because I think sometimes we can as parents, if we’re looking at different options, we’re like, oh, well, this precludes my kid from doing this or, you know, my kids too addicted to attack or my kids smoking too much weed or whatever it is, but it sounds like you sort of look at them all the same, I’m sure there’s a degree of substance use that is, is going to be problematic. But in general, if that is one of the coping skills that they have learned, that, you know, are going to, you’re going to replace with something healthier. It sounds like that fits into just the broader spectrum of Yeah, everybody’s figured out a way to, to get through life and anxiety or deal with the social pressure or whatever, that those can get flipped on their head almost in. And I’m sure when you find and replace some of those with just the fresh air and good food and like you said positive peer pressure that that could be a really big agent for change in kids. Exactly.
Yeah, the growth that I see in individuals from the time they arrive to when they graduate is so exciting and just inspires me, honestly. And I think those individuals also inspire their peers and their parents, it’s really quite beautiful.
Yeah. How would a parent No, I’m just thinking through somebody’s listening this like, Oh, this is amazing. I didn’t know this was an option. Obviously, we know Open Sky has a specialty in this, but what would be some questions that a parent might want to ask if they’re looking for a program, whether that’s wilderness or something else, or even a therapist? To know, how do I know this person really get to understand my child and what they’re dealing with? So that so that you’re making a really informed decision?
I think about specifics of the program that can address a person on the needs of a person on the autism spectrum. So what is the programming like for someone on the autism spectrum? How are the ways that you address like the those specific changes in routine that can get stirred up? You know, like, like, the things that you’re noticing for your particular kiddo? How are how can they be addressed by the program? Are there? So like one of the things that we do at open sky, it’s being developed even further by our Assistant Clinical Director, Chris Blankenship? Like, what’s the specific programming for a person on the autism spectrum? Is there something that that that program is doing to address those needs? Are there ways that they’re teaching social skills? Are there ways that they’re teaching their staff? Because it is not just the therapist, it has to also be throughout the program, you know, is like, what are the different trainings that we’re able to provide to the staff that’s working with the individual kind of day in and day out?
I would also want to know, how is that program addressing all the different kind of components of healthy living, that then that person can take with them, if you’re imagining them being back at home or back at school? So what are the skills that they’re learning so that they can have good self care? Right, you know, how are they learning social skills? How are they learning to go to an interview? How are they learning how to, like, actually develop relationships with people? So I think just looking at the that person in the whole picture,what do they need in order to live their life and reach their goals? All right, so skills they learned here that they can generalize outside of here.
Right? I’m glad that you mentioned the staff, because I think what you don’t necessarily know, before you enter the world of wilderness is that the staff plays such a huge role in the whole experience, and they’re so impactful on your child. And so understanding what kind of training have they gone through is really important, and, and even, how do you how do you let the other kids in the program know? Or what kind of information do they get to know how to have these interactions and how to, you know, work as a team with somebody who might be very different than them? So I think that’s that’s a really great point about really understanding the whole picture, not just who is the therapist, and are they trained? And do they have you know, that experience?
Yeah, I look at the whole program and how they actually support that person.
Yeah. Wow. Well, obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg. So we’ll make sure obviously open sky is one of sky’s the limit fun partner so your information is on our website, but also sure, we’ll connect people to be able to find you Mariah and it’s just so good to know that this is out there because As it is a real struggle for parents and to to know that there’s an option that’s so therapeutic, so safe. And so intentionally built for somebody like your child is just I think it’s just so comforting to know that and a great new resource. So thanks for being here and spending some time with us today.
Thanks for having me. Yeah. Thank you.
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