Mountain Parent’s Local Spotlight
Camp Stories: Changing Lives in the Autism World One Week at a Time

Ascendigo Autism Services’ Summer Adventures Camp offers rewarding, challenging outdoor experiences with positive, autism-specific support for ages 7+. Campers learn athletic, social, and independence skills while getting the opportunity to try rock climbing, wakeboarding and wakesurfing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and more. Ascendigo’s team has specialized training to work with all levels of ability, behaviors, and functioning. Week-long camps run from June 17 – August 10 with residential and day options available.

Olivia can’t speak. Her autism makes it incredibly challenging to communicate with others. Her devoted mother, Julie Manning, goes to great ends to protect her while also allowing her to be a contributing member of her community. However, spending time outside the home is not easy.

Both Olivia’s and Julie’s lives dramatically change for the better when Olivia attends Ascendigo’s Summer Adventures Camp each year with other kids on the wide-ranging spectrum of autism. At camp, Olivia rides horses, rafts the waters of the Roaring Fork River, tubes behind a boat in Rifle Gap, and hikes mountain trails all with the individualized, positive support of an autism-specifically trained coach.

“I never thought Olivia would be doing these things. I started crying when I saw all of these kids like her floating down the river,” Julie said. Julie observes Olivia’s rafting experiences by hiding in the bushes on the river bank because if Olivia saw her, “it would be all over.”

At the end of the camp day, Julie can tell that Olivia is proud of her accomplishments by the confidence on her face and her demeanor. “She’s much calmer, she has color on her face — she’s been outside all day! She also sleeps better.”

While Olivia is taking in Colorado mountain adventures, her mother gets a respite and peace of mind knowing that her daughter is doing something fun like ziplining or hiking. Since Julie grew up in Aspen, she appreciates the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and take to the trails herself. She receives a daily report about Olivia’s successes and challenges. “They totally tailor the day to the child,” Julie said.

The Ascendigo Adventures team develops an individualized plan for each camper that includes social, behavioral, and sport goals. According to Adventures Co-Director Joseph Breiling, coaches are trained to establish a rapport with the camper, understand what motivates them, and what sets them off. Coaches are able to find creative ways to get a camper out of his or her comfort level and into their stretch zone. “We practice incremental learning, develop small achievable goals and adapt those goals as we go,” Joseph explained. “For example, if kneeboarding is the ultimate goal, we may start with tubing, or even getting the camper to just touch the tube. We then make it a goal to get them in the tube then perhaps put the kneeboard on the tube. We are always adaptable and want to end in success.”

Ascendigo coaches tune into what a meaningful reward is for each camper. It may be a simple high-five or scoring a seat in the front of the boat. According to Joseph, self-empowerment is huge in creating independence for those on the autism spectrum.

Independence is what 19-year-old Elliot Maxwell is experiencing. Elliot wears a baseball cap and a big smile. He first experienced Ascendigo Summer Adventures Camp in the summer of 2016 as a camper. It was so enjoyable that he volunteered to help with Ascendigo’s Adventures Club Saturday program for local kids and then became a Leader in Training for Summer Adventures Camp. His responsibilities range from spotting kids while horseback riding, working with the river team to help campers put on river gear to assisting participants with day-to-day activities. What Elliot likes best about camp is all the friends he has made. He thinks he has probably made about 50 friends (campers and staff) and starts naming them . . . “Amy, Abby, Anna, Ben . . .” Elliot laughs as he recounts “camp week #4 2016” when the campers and staff tossed a Go-Pro from one boat to another while floating the river, taking footage along the way.

Having graduated from Basalt High School in 2017, Elliot attends the Roaring Fork School District’s “Ready for the World” program for 18 – 21 year olds with disabilities where he learns social skills, employability skills, how to write a check and more. The program is five days a week with hours that resemble a school day. Elliott considers this his work and proudly proclaims that he has a college ID as a part-time college student at Colorado Mountain College where he is pursuing an Associate of Arts Degree in Theatre Production — his passion. He is now taking a class in the subject during spring semester and plans to take Math, History and English in the fall when he will live in the dorms at the Spring Valley campus. Elliot’s ultimate goal is to work as a tour guide at Disneyland, where he has visited every spring break since 2002.

Elliot moves about the valley to get to his classes via RFTA buses and the CMC shuttle. Conlan McGough, Ascendigo’s Adventures Manager, knows Elliot well and is impressed by Elliot’s independence. Conlan remembers that just a few years ago, Elliot couldn’t manage taking the bus. “I changed myself since the time I was a camper,” Elliot said.

The healing nature of being outdoors in the Colorado Rocky Mountains having fun, the positive encouragement of autism-specifically trained coaches, and the self-empowerment felt from accomplishing something outside of one’s comfort zone all work together to create success story after success story. Ascendigo’s Summer Adventures Camp really does change lives.

About Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism or autism spectrum disorder is a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. The rate of autism in the United States is estimated at 1 in 59. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called autism a national public health crisis whose cause and cure remain unknown.

About Ascendigo Autism Services

Ascendigo Autism Services is a charitable nonprofit organization based in Carbondale. Founded in 2004 as summer sports camp (formerly known as Extreme Sports Camp), Ascendigo has since expanded to offer year-round outdoor recreational options including winter sports, a comprehensive life and residential program for adults, and behavioral therapies for children. Ascendigo’s goal is to integrate people with autism into community life recreationally and socially, whether through adventure sports, basic life skills, compatible employment in friendly companies, or community engagement. Ascendigo takes full advantage of the Roaring Fork Valley’s unmatched natural facilities and the area’s charitable community spirit to offer physical, experiential, and collaborative activities to individuals with autism.

Ascendigo Adventures

Ascendigo Adventures provides Winter, Summer, and Saturday Adventures Camps. The Ascendigo team has specialized training to work with for all levels of ability, behaviors and functioning.

Summer Adventures Camp offers rewarding and challenging opportunities such as wakeboarding and wakesurfing, rock climbing, river rafting, and horseback riding. Positive, autism-friendly support enables campers to succeed and have fun.

Adventures Club begins in September. Saturday activities include hiking, biking, swimming, lake sports, visits to the Aspen Art Museum, pumpkin patch and hayrides, and more.

Winter Adventures Camp offers ski & snowboard lessons, buddy support in group lessons for proficient skiers, ski/board camps, and peer-integration — all on the slopes in Snowmass.

Ascendigo Life Enrichment

Ascendigo’s Life Enrichment Program welcomes adults across the spectrum with individualized services and programs. Ascendigo’s approach focuses on social,vocational, athletic, and daily independent living skills. Clients live and work receiving personalized attention while becoming part of the Roaring Fork Valley culture. The Life Enrichment Program is comprised of three sub programs: Adult Comprehensive Experience (ACE), Ascending to Adulthood (A2A), and the Residential Program.

Adult participants in Adult Comprehensive Experience improve their social, employment, daily living and athletic skills with Ascendigo’s trademark 1:1 support.

The Ascending to Adulthood program is a six-week summer transition program that focuses on developing the skills needed to build a bridge from adolescence to adulthood for young adults living with autism or related disorders. 

Ascendigo’s Residential Program provides residential supports and services in privately-owned or rented residences in Carbondale so that adults on the spectrum can take full advantage of the Colorado Rocky Mountain lifestyle.

Ascendigo Outreach
Ascendigo’s Outreach Program provides behavioral therapy and school consultations for children living from Aspen to Rifle, Colorado. Ascendigo provides in-home behavioral therapy and school consultations by BCBA’s, OT’s, BCBA-candidates, and Registered Behavior Technicians. Ascendigo uses naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions, incorporating the Early Start Denver Model, positive behavioral supports, pivotal response training, and applied behavioral analysis.