Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods
Words by Melanie Cissone
Illustration by Jamison Harper

Lindy Wood’s eyes tear up when she remembers her infant son’s piercing rejection. “I felt like I was toxic.” 

Little Weston railed against being picked up and cuddled, the most intuitive of gestures. Her baby’s ordinary discomforts, such as teething and wet diapers, made him inconsolable in Lindy’s arms. Weston  fought against even the closeness of breastfeeding, his struggle a foreign experience to a mother who had already nursed two children. 

Autism hadn’t occurred to Lindy. “And I was a psychiatric nurse practitioner,” she reveals, admitting  that she should have known the signs.

Elusive at first, the often-subtle symptoms of children with developmental disabilities can be confounding. A constant among parents wrestling with their intuition is the deleterious effect it has on their family in trying to figure out why something’s just not right. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), cognitive disabilities, and other special needs, including Down Syndrome, can be extraordinarily different, sometimes layered and different from one child to the next.

The path that parents trod to arrive at these diagnoses, however, is virtually the same.

Lynn O’Connor, of Narberth, Pennsylvania, is an investigative attorney for the federal government and the mother of Jake, a 23-year-old with global developmental coordination disorder. Her son graduates this year from a residential life preparation program in New Haven, Connecticut and has plans to live independently with his school roommate.

Contemplating the Wood family story, Lynn remembers those early years, “I didn’t want to know.” “In my gut,” she continues, “I sensed there was something that was not OK.” 

“It takes a long time. It was a slow unfolding of grief,” she remarks about feelings of bereavement that began with denial and evolved into acceptance.

At the front door of their own experience, Lindy and Jason Wood ruled out allergies and deafness and were adapting to their two-year-old son’s idiosyncrasies. Sensitivity to touch was one, aversion to cool bath water, and no speech were some others. With broken hearts, they watched his self-harming behavior, such as biting his arm or banging his head on the floor—common among children who struggle to communicate their needs, wants, or feelings—and the high school sweethearts from Livingston, Alabama were propelled toward the probability that their third child grappled with more than fussiness.

Catapulted into the reality of severe Nonverbal Autism Spectrum Disorder, a child psychologist defined what the Woods family couldn’t. Lindy admits, “Autism seemed like a death sentence in those moments. All I could think of was how his life would be negatively affected: friendships, sports, girlfriends. It was the toughest time of my life.”

With four-week old Piper, Weston’s newborn sister, and a mama grizzly bear mindset toward her son’s challenging diagnosis, Lindy, Weston, and Piper spent weekdays for two years living in Birmingham, Alabama. Weston attended Mitchell's Place, an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy program. Weekends were spent as a family with her husband and their two older kids, Paxton and Kenlee, at their farm in Livingston, two hours southwest.

“‘Let’s give this all we’ve got,’ was our attitude,” Lindy says. However, the distance and the personal demands overwhelmed her. She missed her other children and, with sadness in her voice, says, “My marriage suffered.” Doubting everything, she confesses, “I questioned my faith too.” “Why, why, why?” played on a loop in her mind.

Lindy got her answer when she met a woman whose 22-year-old daughter had aged out of the public education system. Encouraged at that time by Weston’s progress, it was still impossible to predict her son’s developmental trajectory. Lindy reflected on the personal and career sacrifices the other mother made for her adult daughter, a result of no practical job training or life skill coaching that might have allowed for some independence. 

Witnessing this was Lindy Wood’s call to action.

Even with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), a system that teaches math, English, and geography, for example, but that provides few practical skills for the special needs population, was, as Lindy saw it, broken. Envisioning Weston’s life down the road through the lens of another mom’s experience, Lindy used this transformational reality check as the impetus for creating Westonwood Ranch, a unique experiential day school and after-school farm program for the developmentally disabled aged 13 to 22.

“She’s ten-fold your typical fierce autistic child’s mom,” says Kelly Thompson, Westonwood’s Executive Director, describing the ranch’s tenacious founder.

Having outrun the resources available to them in Alabama, Weston was six when the Woods moved to Freeport, Florida, so he could attend Emerald Coast Autism Center in Niceville. The purchase of a 40-acre spread was also an opportunity for Jason and the older children to expand their growing personal interest in rodeo. Before closing on their Freeport purchase, Lindy implored her husband who acquires, renovates, and manages hotels, “I don’t know what it will look like, but we need to do something with the property for autism.”

With ABA therapy at its core, Lindy rolled out a business plan and serendipitously discovered families who offered in-kind services, donations, or both for the design and construction of the ranch’s facilities. A well-conceived leap of faith, seven students diagnosed with ASD, Down Syndrome, and Williams Syndrome enrolled in Westonwood’s inaugural fall 2019 semester.

Lindy lassoed her vision of a hybrid learning environment for an underserved age group using microbusinesses as field training, and provided animal, art, and sensory therapeutic services. She also integrated data-intensive ABA therapy with practical applications of math, reading, and writing inherent in hands-on pre-vocational job- and life-skill preparedness. The farm setting, its animals, its educational and therapeutic program, and its micro-entrepreneurial aquaponic produce and commercial dog treat endeavors, are a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Exposing day school participants to such practicalities as calculating measurements in a recipe, knowing when to pick a ripe tomato, and caring for the farm’s animals, is intended to ignite a spark. “When those sparks are cultivated, we’re helping to create independence,” Lindy posits.

“We’re growing people’s potential,” she says adamantly.

Asher, Janelle Kimball’s 14-year-old son, attends the day program. The teen’s mom says, “Westonwood gives families opportunities.”

“The ranch came at a perfect time,” she remarks about the chance discovery of the school when she thought initially that it offered only after-school equine therapy.

Nearly a two-hour commute by bus each way from the Kimball home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida to his school, Janelle says, “Asher would get 100 percent on a spelling test but would have to study the words again anyway.” Exhaustion from commuting and boredom led to behavior problems. Diagnosed with Williams Syndrome and autism, Janelle says her son can hear a song once and play it back perfectly. Of his twofold diagnosis, she says, “He’s capable of memorizing almost anything but doesn’t really know what a friend is.”

“He fits in well at Westonwood Ranch,” she assures, “because they are well-informed on autism, but they also welcome his happy-to-see-you Williams Syndrome personality.”

“We got our son back,” she says happily.

The head gate at the entrance to Westonwood Ranch is modest compared to the gold horse statues fronting a neighboring ranch. A sand-gravel road lined with trees and a wood-railed fence winds its way about half a mile to the ranch’s main building. A breezeway next to the administrative offices leads to an outdoor patio where students and faculty dine together in temperate weather. Chloe, one of the barn cats, swirls around visitors’ ankles and chaperones tours.

Housed under one roof is the school’s technology, art, life skills, and fitness rooms, as well as its test kitchen and open-air riding ring. There’s a state-of-the-art Snoezelen room, a controlled multi-sensory environment that stimulates under-responsiveness, calms the overwrought, and quells anxiety and excitability. Petting and holding the farm’s animals, riding the horses, sitting in the Snoezelen sound-tamping egg chair, or manipulating the spaghetti-like strands of hanging fiber-optic lights, are sensory stimuli that are a much-needed release in a student’s day, an essential conduit to progression in other areas of the school’s curriculum.

Look no further than the film about the life story of Temple Grandin to understand sensory challenges among people with autism and how that makes many sympathetic to animals. It’s a glimpse into how the overly-sensitized respond to visual, auditory, and tactile sensations. By appreciating the role that light, sound, and touch play in their lives, it’s easy to see why one person might experience a meltdown from loud banging noises, as an example, or another connect with non-threatening, warm, furry beings that expect little emotionally and whose verbal communication skills are similarly limited. The sensation of a horse’s hair against a bare leg alone can soothe an overstimulated youngster. 

A screened porch overlooks the riding ring, which backs onto a paddock for Westonwood’s three horses: Teal, Jolene, and Razzy. An after-school equine therapy program mom says, “The routine of grooming, saddling, and mounting a horse, and learning ‘walk on’ or ‘whoa’ commands, has been valuable. But the empathetic connectedness my daughter shows for the horses and other ranch animals has caused our family to get a couple of kittens. She’s very sweet and attentive to them.” 

The campus has a menagerie of rescued animals: alpacas, potbelly pigs, goats, chickens, and rabbits. Students look after them, choosing a different animal weekly. This practice encourages time management and requires students to write schedules, an integrated measurable ABA-type skill. Every goal that’s set and every incremental task that’s learned during the 30- to 35-minute sessions is measured and tracked. These data are foundational to ABA therapy. 

Tasks as simple as setting a table, hair combing, using hot pads to pick up a warm pan, remembering to feed their animal, or learning to use an ATM card, build on highly individualized treatment plans established in conjunction with the school, the family, and the students. Achieving these goals may take months, even years. As pathways to independence, these functional living skills allow for safety in the family home and for potentially living independently. There is regular “over-communication,” as Kelly Thompson calls it, with parents or caregivers, that endorses consistency. 

Applauding the hiring practices of such companies as Publix, Lindy says, “Grocery store work isn’t the only thing special needs people are capable of.” Adapting to the distinctive emotional limitations of those with autism and tapping into the aptitude for hyper focus, Microsoft and Dell have Autism Hiring Programs. In South Florida, Rising Tide Car Wash tags itself as “a scalable social enterprise with the primary mission to employ adults with autism.” Westonwood Ranch is unique in that its built-in job and life skill training lay the groundwork for employment at its own greenhouse and commercial kitchen, or for jobs elsewhere.

“Even those with the most severe symptoms have unique talents,” Lindy defends, adding that, “it’s called a spectrum for a reason.”

With its 30-student capacity, its long-range goals are a residential campus program and, over time, quantifiable longitudinal ABA data. Individual and corporate donations, foundations, and Florida’s Mckay, Gardiner & Step Up scholarship, fund ranch programs. Westonwood won’t turn down participants. 

Stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic, the third annual Westonwood Ranch Charity Rodeo, a significant fundraiser for the school, local autism awareness boom, and popular community event, was delayed until further notice. While the fundraising deficit will impact Westonwood’s annual budget as designed, the Ranch’s microenterprises sustain it as it awaits the return of students, who currently fulfill their curriculum requirements remotely.

At the time of this writing, “typical” is used to describe non-developmentally challenged people. Understandably, it’s an apt replacement for “normal.” Nonetheless, for anyone who’s raised children, we know there really isn’t a typical kid out there. The world’s atypical children become adults who drive innovation, develop new ideas, create disruptive technology, and bring hybrid concepts to the fore about education for special students. Being the ten-fold typical fierce mother of Weston Wood launched Lindy Wood into that atypical realm. Perhaps she was hurled into more than she anticipated, on behalf of the developmentally disabled teens and young adults of northwest Florida. Thankfully, she understands that orbit better than most.