Photos Copyright Threshold Community Program
This week’s feature school is The Community School (Note that it is now called Threshold Community Program) in Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. It is unique in that its cohort is adolescents and young adults. I had the privilege of speaking with the founder, Dave Nelson. Like many, his career was not in the autism world until it affected him personally. You can hear the podcast below. Enjoy! A big special “thanks” to Dave for taking the time to speak with Affect Autism!
Threshold Community Program's Dave Nelson
When his son was about 8 or 9, Dave went back to school and became a Licenced Professional Counsellor (LPC). As time went on, his son struggled with educational settings. When his son was entering adolescence and told his father that he wanted a place with infinite support that put no limits on what he could do, Dave started The Community School (which is now called Threshold Community Program).
The program’s focus is really on how to manage the ups and downs of everyday life, how to think in the gray, how not to rely on rote memory skills, and the absorption of content and knowledge, but also how to build relationships, how to see multiple perspectives, and how to integrate into the larger world.
Dave says that ultimately, where many autistics are at risk, is in their inability to stay connected with others because they get high-jacked by their strong emotional reactions. This is a guiding principle for what he and his staff focus on.
The The Community School (now called Threshold Community Program) is a private, non-profit program that can grant high school diplomas. In Georgia, if you have been a public school student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place and decide to opt out of the public system, you are entitled to a certain amount of money to use to help pay their tuition.
The biggest challenge is how to make their program accessible to the most amount of people. It serves adolescents and young adults.
Dave says that his staff notices that as new students come to their program, they can usually see which families have been supporting their children in the ways that the program focuses on, such as whether or not the children have an emerging capability to see the perspective of another person, are able to negotiate and compromise, are can self reflect a little bit and articulate their feelings to some degree.
The program applies the DIR framework in a few ways. It forms the foundation of the approach. It is person-centred in that they help their students articulate goals and be co-collaborators in their experience, with parents being involved as well. They want the students to be able to make decisions for themselves and advocate for themselves.
Dave says that a lot of their children who have come through intensive interventions are externally directed when they arrive at their school. They don’t have a sense that they can make their own decisions or don’t have the emotional durability to make their own decisions. Dave gives the example of asking a child what his favourite colour was, or what movie he would want to watch between two choices and him not being able to make these simple decisions.
The way DIR is infused in the program is that they are process oriented: The staff engages the students in making decisions that affect them, as opposed to a therapist coming in and telling them what is going to happen. The program is also a therapeutic program as there are seven licensed mental health professionals on staff.
The program will on occasion bring in outside people or components online to supplement their teaching to specific areas, such as a student requiring a higher-level mathematics or science course.
They do not have specific speech & language or occupational therapy services directly in the program, but will use them as outside consults as required. Some students get these services outside of the program, but in general, by the time families are working through adolescence, these services have tended to drop off. However, their fitness work in the program is informed by occupational therapy.
What does a typical day look like?
Dave says they have classrooms just like schools, with teachers or therapists. The students have a schedule that is the same from week to week. It’s also very individualized. For those working on a high school diploma, there are more academics in the schedule. There’s a lot of affinities-based work regardless of academics for everyone, building a lot of learning off of the children’s particular interest and capabilities.
Dave says they also have significant parent support. They have a required initial parent training, monthly parent support groups, ongoing parent training, and daily online notes to serve as a training mechanism to understand why the program does what they do. The majority of the families they work with do not have a good understanding of the DIR model when they first arrive. In their communication with families, they focus on what the program can help their students do better than they have been able to in the past.
It can be a challenge to ‘fill in the holes’ in the early foundational capacities. The challenge is more about supporting the family as a whole in helping them understand what the program is doing. You have to be able to navigate the world in a more emotionally stable way to take advantage of what’s in the world. The staff spend a lot of time co-regulating to help students manage their own regulation. It’s challenging to show the parents that this work will enable their child to make better use of their cognitive capabilities down the road.
Ultimately it’s not really about schooling or education, it’s really about the transition to the most successful connected purposeful adult life that the program can help people to have (thus why they changed their name to Threshold Community Program). Dave had to give up on the idea of his son getting his high school degree for his son to get to a place where he was able to do that–which he has, and his son is now working on his college degree.
You can contact Dave through the website of The Threshold Community Program HERE if you have questions. If you have any comments or experiences to share, please Comment below. If you enjoyed this blog post and podcast, please Share this post on Facebook or Twitter.
Until next time…here’s to affecting autism through play!