Yampa Valley Autism helps children accept themselves | SteamboatToday.com

Yampa Valley Autism wants Autism Awareness month to teach acceptance, appreciation

Yampa Valley Autism therapist Diane Yazbeck works with Finn Lodwick. YVA, which started as six moms with children on the autism spectrum has grown to help children with all types of special needs in Routt and Moffat counties. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Albert Einstein. Andy Warhol. Bill Gates. Charles Darwin. James Joyce.

Just think, said Dr. Roseanne Iverson, what the world would be without these creative, brilliant minds — all of whom are considered to be somewhere on the autism spectrum.

April has gained traction as Autism Awareness month, but Iverson wants to see that awareness turn to acceptance. Iverson is a physician with Steamboat Springs Family Medicine and a Yampa Valley Autism board member.

And, going further than acceptance, said Lisa Lorenz, YVA executive director, it’s about appreciating and valuing the uniqueness and gifts of people on the spectrum, like their singular focus of the autistic brain — and the ability to do one thing extremely well.

Iverson likes the term “nuerodiverse,” and the rest of us just being “nuerotypical.”

There’s Steve Jobs. Isaac Newton. Stanley Kubrick. Thomas Jefferson.

The tech world, Iverson noted, “is dominated by those on the spectrum.”

Nicola Tesla. Emily Dickinson. Michaelangelo. Lewis Carroll. Mozart.

If you go

What: Yampa Valley Autism’s Masquerade Ball Fundraiser “Once Upon a Time”
When: 6 p.m. to midnight Saturday, April 6
Where: Neas Atrium at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, 1275 Crawford Ave.
Cost: $95 per person
Tickets: yampavalleyautism.org or 970-846-1519

“They’ve made a big difference in society,” Iverson said. “They are scientists, artists, inventors, creators and entertainers who don’t follow the norm. They see things differently, and that’s what we need. People who think differently.”

While they may struggle to socialize and communicate, she said, those “quirks,” mannerisms and behaviors considered odd or off-putting by some merit more understanding and acceptance.

If someone has trouble with eye contact, don’t worry about eye contact, Iverson said. If someone seems rude or offensive, the rest of us might warrant more empathy, Lorenz said.

There are varying degrees of autism, of course, and some people can’t communicate at all — at least not in the traditional ways. “It’s almost like they are trapped in their brain,” Iverson said.

But, the definition of autism is not associated with intellectual disability, she explained, describing the history and evolution of the diagnosis and society’s understanding.  

Early intervention and access to therapy and services is crucial for many kids on the spectrum to develop the skills they need to thrive.

The YVA program serves kids in Routt and Moffat counties and has grown significantly since it started in 2002 as a group of six moms with six sons on the spectrum who were struggling to find resources in a small town.

They formed a board, recruited specialists and became a non-profit in 2007. They started programming in 2009. And, today, they provide services for young people not only on the autism spectrum but also with a wide range of special needs.

Four years ago, they had an annual budget of less than $200,000, Lorenz said. Today, it’s over $500,000. They’ve quadrupled their programming and have a full- and part-time staff that includes more than 30 people. The STRIDES transition program is being held up as a model, helping young adults develop the “essential life, social and vocation skills to become independent members of our community.” It’s completely individualized, Lorenz said, and “100 percent crafted for what their goals and needs are.”

When it comes to finding employment for the STRIDES graduates around Steamboat Springs, “Everyone wants to be a part of providing jobs,” Lorenz said.

“We have such a loving, supportive community,” Lorenz said.

Angela Young’s son Kaleb has been part of the YVA program for the past decade. “He would not be where he is today without the support of YVA,” she said. In addition to that, “If we were anywhere else — not Steamboat — he would not be where he is. I say that without a doubt.”

It wasn’t easy at first, Young said, in figuring out how best to address the needs of a child who was different. But, as soon as she got Kaleb working with YVA, “They made it seem like he had a gift instead.”

Finn Lodwick plays with a snake named Khaleesi during a therapy session at Yampa Valley Autism.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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