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A loving push: Cullowhee farm provides growth, safety for people with autism

Grayson Wolfe is the kid with the huge smile on his face as he jumps between stepping stones on the obstacle course. He’s the kid biting his tongue in concentration as he prepares to descend the slide; the kid blowing air through a straw with all he’s got to power his paper boat through the water; the kid leaning over to hug one of the adults volunteering that day at Full Spectrum Farms.

“He’s really shining here,” said Grayson’s dad Ron Wolfe, watching his son play. 

The words carry the weight of all the times Wolfe has had to watch his 7-year-old son navigate situations where he definitely does not shine. Grayson was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder at age 2, but this year he received a new diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder. 

“It took us a little while to process it, but we did a lot of reading about it,” Wolfe said. “What does that truly mean? How is that going to affect him?”

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Grayson Wolfe (right) competes in a paper boat race with a fellow camper. Holly Kays photoGrayson Wolfe (right) competes in a paper boat race with a fellow camper. Holly Kays photo

Autism is a neurological disorder that includes difficulty with social skills and communication, repetitive behaviors and overall a different way of seeing and experiencing the world than those without autism. Autism is a spectrum, not a pinpoint, so the disorder can affect different people in markedly different ways, and with varying degrees of intensity. 

For Grayson, autism comes with difficulty in muscle control. Reading and writing are hard for him — though he’s going into second grade, he can’t write or read his own name. 

But social isolation may be the most difficult challenge he faces. 

“Grayson, 7 years old, has never been invited to a birthday party, never been invited to anything,” Wolfe said. “If you were to ask him, ‘Who are your friends?’ it would be, ‘Oh, I don’t have any.’ He at school is excluded from almost everything.”

It’s not like that at Full Spectrum Farms. Founded in 2002 and located in Cullowhee, Full Spectrum is a nonprofit organization that aims to give people with autism a safe and encouraging place to explore and expand their capabilities. A summer day camp is one of its many offerings, and on this warm Tuesday in July, Wolfe had brought Grayson over to check out Full Spectrum for the very first time. 

Grayson hadn’t wanted to go, Wolfe said, and that morning it was all he could do to get his son to leave the house. They were just going to go check it out, he told Grayson. Just drop off the paperwork and then go home. Wolfe didn’t even pack Grayson a lunch, he was so sure they wouldn’t be staying long. 

But from the first moment, Grayson saw Full Spectrum as a safe place. He was included in the activities, Wolfe said, but not forced to participate beyond his comfort level. They stayed, and before Grayson knew it the day was over and he was excited to come back again. 

“It’s been pretty incredible,” Wolfe said. “Typically at school he doesn’t shine because they tend to stick to the kids who are better at education. Seeing him shine here is the world.”

 

A place to be themselves

Jane Coburn has been working with people with cognitive disabilities since childhood, when she befriended a neighborhood family whose son had some severe disabilities. While other kids were scared of the big guy who wore a helmet and had frequent seizures, Coburn was drawn to him. She helped his parents take care of him, and when she went off to college it was to earn a degree in rehabilitation counseling, so she could continue helping people who faced those kinds of challenges. 

But nothing prepared her for the pair of diagnoses that changed her life forever — the news that her sons Austin and Jake both had autism. 

“It was devastating,” she said. “You’d think since I worked in the field I’d think, ‘I can handle this,’ but when it’s your own child it’s a whole other ballgame.”

In the professional setting, it’s easier to keep an emotional distance, to remain clear-headed and focused on the task at hand. 

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Full Spectrum Farms clients walk farm dog Gus across the Jackson County Greenway bridge. Mandi Joy Dowling photoFull Spectrum Farms clients walk farm dog Gus across the Jackson County Greenway bridge. Mandi Joy Dowling photo

“When it’s your own kids, there’s so much emotion wrapped up in it, and so much pressure as their parent,” Coburn said. “You love them so much and you worry about what other people think about them. There’s so much wrapped up into it. It was hard.”

At the time, Coburn and her husband Andy were living in Durham, an urban area where virtually every autism therapy imaginable was available. Then, Andy got an offer to come teach at Western Carolina University.

“When we were considering moving out here, I was a wreck about it. I was really nervous about it because I thought, ‘What is going to be out there in such a rural area?’” Coburn said. “There wasn’t anything. There wasn’t much. But the cool thing that we found is that the small community has kind of been a natural support.”

People know who her sons are. They talk to them when they see them out and about, and they watch out for their wellbeing. It’s great, but that kind of community took time to build.

Newly transplanted to WNC, Coburn was desperately Googling search terms along the lines of “Jackson County autism” when Full Spectrum Farms popped up.

“We didn’t have that land where the farm is now,” she said. “It was just this little rundown building on Old Cullowhee Road. It was all volunteer-run. It was parents of people with autism just trying to get something going.”

It’s grown since then, and so have her kids, who are now ages 19 and 21. Coburn has fought hard for them to live the most fulfilling, independent lives possible, integrated with the community at large rather than hiding from it. Austin, 21, is Full Spectrum Farms’ first-ever tenant, living in a house the organization owns with two roommates who help teach him the life skills he’ll need to be truly independent one day. He holds a job, volunteers at City Lights Bookstore and Hunter Library, and loves baking, music and the weather. Jake, 19, is a college student, having just completed his first year at the University of Alabama. He’s majoring in American studies with hopes of one day earning a master’s of library science — he’s not so involved with the farm anymore. 

The boys are doing well, but just as a person who speaks English as a second language would rather converse in their native tongue, people with autism often find comfort in settings where they don’t have to hide their difference. It takes constant energy and focus to navigate life in a language that’s not your own — being somewhere that you can let your guard down and not have to think so hard about everything can be a relief. 

That’s where Full Spectrum comes in. 

“Inclusion is important to me, but when they’re being included people don’t get it, so they have to kind of feel different and worry about how they’re acting and try and fit in,” Coburn said. “At the farm it’s like anything goes. They can just be and be themselves, and nobody cares if they have weird tics or if they’re saying something slightly inappropriate.”

At the farm, she said, they can feel proud of who they are and what they’ve accomplished. Being able to produce artwork, see it sell and receive the profits has given Austin in particular an infusion of confidence and pride. 

“A lot of times people focus on the negatives with them and the challenges, but at Full Spectrum Farms it’s always the positive, and what you can do,” Coburn said. 

 

Expanding boundaries

Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, Full Spectrum Farms includes a 34-acre property featuring a garden, chicken coop, playground, walking path, pavilion and main house, as well as the 2,600-square-foot house where Austin and his roommates live. 

Full Spectrum makes it a point not to charge for services, meaning that it leans heavily on grant funding, donations, fundraisers and volunteer hours, with the clients themselves also supporting the operation. When they make crafts or raise vegetables, they sell them at the Jackson County Farmers Market. A portion of the proceeds goes back to the individual clients who made the product, and the rest supports the farm. 

The organization has come a long way from its humble origins, which have their root in a group of parents of kids with autism who banded together to give pottery classes using part of a woodworking shop donated by a friend. That group was led by Full Spectrum founders Margaret Oren and Jean Alvarez, who had worked for the Autism Society of North Carolina. The parent of a child with autism, Alvarez had visited a therapeutic farm in Raleigh and was inspired to create something similar in the western region. 

These days, the farm serves an average of 25 adult and child clients per week, offering craft classes, a pet therapy walking group, Friday social functions, pottery classes, summer day camps and various special events. 

At the heart of Full Spectrum Farms is the farm itself. 

“The sensory component of it is huge,” said Erin McManus, director of Full Spectrum Farms. “To be out here, you can feel it. It’s much more relaxing. So it’s exposing them to the outside. I have some clients who have not been outside in years, so it’s getting them comfortable in the outside environment. It’s giving them job skills, of course, and it’s having them do an activity in a desensitized environment.”

For people with autism, various stimuli that people without the disorder would brush off as no big deal can quickly prove overwhelming. A shirt that fits too tightly, lights that flicker or shine too brightly and strange noises can all prove difficult hurdles to overcome. Being in the garden forces clients to deal with some degree of sensory input and unpredictability — you never know exactly when a beetle may buzz by or a breeze may cause leaves to brush your leg — but it’s a more gentle degree of sensory input than that found in many other situations. 

“Temple Grandin calls it a loving push,” said McManus, referencing the acclaimed autism spokesperson, author and professor of animal science. “It’s kind of our overarching philosophy here.”

By encouraging clients to push their boundaries, bit by bit, the hope is that they’ll eventually find themselves succeeding in ways they wouldn’t have previously thought possible. Everyone has a job in the garden, something the farm relies on them to do and that they can take ownership of, whether that be collecting eggs, picking veggies or pulling weeds.

Animals are another agent of that loving push. Every week, a group of clients takes the farm dogs for a walk along the Jackson County Greenway. 

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Full Spectrum Director Erin McManus holds up one of the farm’s eight resident chickens. Holly Kays photo

“A lot of times our dogs will help the transition,” McManus said. “When we walk on the greenway, everyone wants to stop and talk to the dogs, which forces the client to stop and make a decision of how they’re going to interact with that person.”

It’s important that the push be gentle, though. Dropping someone in the proverbial deep end won’t help anyone learn to swim — it will only induce panic. Back at Grayson’s first day of camp, the group of six kids was working through activities designed to stretch their comfort level, but the therapies were cleverly disguised as pure fun. Kids blew bubbles in water, “milked” a paper cow by squeezing water from a pink rubber glove and gave plastic, dirt-covered trucks a wash in tubs of clear water. 

“Some of these kids have a tactile defensiveness, and they don’t like things on their hands, so when they get into a school setting and they’re doing finger painting or anything they don’t want on their hands, they may refuse that activity or not participate with their class,” explained Anna Walls, occupational assistant therapy program coordinator at Southwestern Community College. “In occupational therapy, we try to introduce things slowly and at a rate that they make an appropriate response to. You don’t push them to the point that they just refuse to do activities.”

 

Growing partnerships 

This is Walls’ third year working with Full Spectrum, and she didn’t come alone — she brought along seven occupational therapy students to the summer day camp, planning activities and working one-on-one with kids to develop the skills that will help them to more fully participate in their main occupation as kids: play. The next day, the students will switch gears to work with Full Spectrum’s adult clients, with the goal of teaching everyone how to use the transit system. Then, the group will call a ride, go to the library, find a recipe, go to Ingles, buy ingredients and return to the farm to cook a meal. 

“When you think of physical therapy, you’re thinking of exercise. When you think of occupational therapy, think of all the things you do in a day, and that’s what our biggest goal is — to get people to participate in the things that are important to them,” said Walls. 

In addition to SCC, Full Spectrum partners with the psychology and business departments at WCU, and those relationships have significantly expanded the services the farm can offer on its shoestring budget. 

Mickey Randolph, a Full Spectrum board member and WCU psychology professor, has been requiring her undergraduates to do one hour of service learning per week for about 20 years. Some of them choose to do those hours at Full Spectrum. Some even opt for a full-blown internship, which is a 10-hour-per-week commitment. 

About three years ago, Randolph began involving her graduate students as well. In addition to volunteering 20 hours per semester, second-year students have to give one talk throughout the semester on topics that are relevant to the families of people affected by autism. First-year students volunteer about 10 hours per semester.

The partnership has been a good thing, for the clients and for the students. Several students have even changed the whole course of their future career after experiencing Full Spectrum, Randolph said. At the end of each semester, the undergrads have to turn in a paper reflecting on their service experience, and “those are the best papers to read,” Randolph said. “Typically they start with, ‘I didn’t want to do this activity,’ but then they say, ‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’”

As opposed to the more obvious tie-in for the psychology department, the College of Business’ interest in Full Spectrum might be a bit less apparent. 

“At a glance when you think about it, the College of Business doesn’t sound like a fit,” acknowledged Yue Hillon, associate professor of management at WCU and treasurer for the Full Spectrum board. “But no matter business or nonprofit, when you look at the operation side and planning, that’s going to teach strategies.”

So, her students help the farm with the business side of things — developing a business plan, financial forecasting, creating a website. 

This constant supply of college students has proven vital to Full Spectrum’s operations. 

“We exist fully on volunteers,” said McManus, who became Full Spectrum’s first and only paid staff member in 2014. “Essential volunteers like Carol (West), who probably works 60 hours a week and Norman (West), all the way to our board members — all are volunteer, but our students make stuff like this possible. The students are all completing a component of their education, and they’re getting critical experience.”

Critical experience professionally, but also personally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 children in the United States has autism. That includes 1 in 37 boys and 1 in 151 girls. At some point or another, most everyone will cross paths with someone who has autism, and it’s important to understand what that diagnosis does — and does not — mean. 

“When I was in college in the mid-’80s, they told us that people with autism don’t have empathy and aren’t really interested in other people, but my kids, that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Coburn said. 

It’s also not true that kids with autism can only be good at music, or computer programming, or math, or something else from the narrow list of stereotypically autistic interests. 

The reality, Coburn said, is that people with autism are just as diverse as their neurologically typical peers, and that at their core they have the same needs and desires as any other human being. 

“People with autism are people, and they want the same things out of life,” she said. “They want to fall in love, have jobs, they want to have friends. They’re just awkward and maybe not navigating the social world and relationships and friendships very well. But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to.”

 

 

Spend starlight at Full Spectrum

Full Spectrum Farms will hold its Starlight Night fall festival starting at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at Full Spectrum Farm in Cullowhee. 

The family-friendly evening will include hayrides, a petting zoo, farm tours, barbeque, music, a silent auction and beer and wine — all underneath a newly constructed pavilion at the farm, lighted by tiny lights and candlelight. 

Together with an April golf tournament, the fall festival raises most of the farm’s annual operating budget. Tickets are $25 per person or $50 for a family and available at the door or in advance by contacting the farm at 828.293.2521 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Table sponsors, silent auction donations and volunteers are wanted. The event is sponsored by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and the farm is located at 1185 Wayehutta Road, Cullowhee. 

Donations accepted throughout the year to P.O. Box 3103, Cullowhee, NC 28723. 

www.fullspectrumfarms.org.

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