Jesse Ogas can barely contain his excitement as he strides through the hallways of the former Sobesky Academy in Lakewood. At the moment, it’s a busy construction zone, but in May, it is scheduled reopen as the new day-treatment facility of Firefly Autism. Founded in 2003 under a different name, the nonprofit organization has grown to be a national leader in serving children and young adults on the autism spectrum.
For every student at Firefly Autism, there’s a therapist. Firefly currently serves 40 children at the center at a time and maintains a large waitlist.
“In this new facility, we will be able to serve 160 children at any given time, from ages 18 months to 21 years of age, which is huge. Huge!” Ogas, Firefly’s executive director, enthuses. “Not to mention expand our other programs. For the first time, in the after-hours, our new school will become a facility that’ll be used for adults who are being diagnosed on the spectrum later in life. We went from 9,000 clinical square feet to now 30,000 square feet. We’re beyond excited. We’re beside ourselves. Think of the impact we’re going to be able to make.”
The majority of students who come to Firefly Autism are nonverbal, so helping them learn to communicate is a top priority. Every approach is custom-tailored to the student.
“When you’ve met a child or an adult with autism, you’ve met a single human being with autism. Worldwide, there is not one case that is alike,” Ogas explains. “So that’s what’s unique about Firefly: we’re a one-on-one model, and we individualize every program around the child or adult specific to their needs.”
A big part of that is using Applied Behavior Analysis, a data-driven scientific methodology. Therapists frequently input data into iPads throughout the day that is later processed by an app, so they can tailor the next day’s lesson plan based on what worked.
In one success story, a young man who was over 6 feet tall and weighed more than 230 pounds couldn’t tolerate hearing someone cough or clear their throat—to the point of physical aggression. So therapists gradually introduced the sounds in safe environments and the student, who started out non-verbal, learned to verbally alert others that he was uncomfortable and needed to leave, rather than reacting with violence.
“Communication is the absolute key for a person on the spectrum,” Ogas says. “If you can unleash the potential of a child who is autistic, what they can do is endless.”
Ogas is delighted that the new building is ADA-compliant and has an elevator, which means Firefly will be able to serve students who use wheelchairs. The new location will also offer a full-size gymnasium, three separate playgrounds with sensory equipment to help calm students when they become overstimulated, and a garden to help students learn to grow—and eventually eat—vegetables.
A new program called “Adventures in Inclusion” will partner Firefly students with neurotypical peers, so that the students can learn social skills that will help them adapt when they graduate from Firefly and assimilate into public schools. The neurotypical children can also learn to support their friends with autism.
“What’s so beautiful and significant about the program is the neurotypical children learn how to support their autistic peer in their needs, but they also become the future advocates for these children,” he says. “So that when they go into middle school and the bullying begins, they’re the ones that will step up to take care of their classmate.”
The ultimate goal of Firefly’s myriad programs, which also include home-based services, is to help not just the student, but the entire family. Many parents have told Ogas that prior to enrolling a child at Firefly, their family couldn’t eat together in restaurants, and wasn’t invited to birthday parties or neighborhood barbecues. So intervention can have a tremendously positive impact on the entire family by allowing them to start enjoying outings together.
Melinda Paterson, development director for Firefly Autism, says she’s often cried tears of joy from witnessing the remarkable progress of students.
“What I’ve noticed most with the therapists is the love that they give the kids,” she says. “The kids automatically trust them. Therefore, I think their progress is more apt to happen, because they know that they love them. It’s pretty amazing.”
Denver resident Nicole Taylor learned about Firefly Autism when Ogas made a presentation to Mayor Michael Hancock’s Denver Latino Commission.
“In communities of color, so many kids go undiagnosed,” she says. “It’s a lack of resources. It’s a lack of information. It’s a lack of funding.”
Since then, Firefly Autism has helped her 4-year-old grandson Luciano “Bubba” Espinoza-Pagliasotti go from nonverbal to speaking in sentences and understanding concepts.
“The best thing that ever happened to us was connecting with Firefly and because of that, I know Bubba will have a great life—and great quality of life—and will always have a secondary family to lean on even into adulthood,” she says. “I think that’s beautiful.”
Jesse Ogas, executive director of Firefly Autism, has advice for parents whose children have just been diagnosed with autism: “It’s not the end of the world.”
“There is hope out there,” he says. “Whether a family decides to come to Firefly or not, use us. We’re a resource for you. We have a whole list of service providers who we know do great work that we can provide you with.”
Don’t delay looking into resources, since early intervention is the “absolute key to success” for a child, he advises.
“Autism is a neurological processing disorder, and the brain is malleable between the age of zero and six. So we can redevelop new channels of processing.”
2695 S. Jersey St.
Denver, CO 80222
Future location—slated to open in May
2001 Hoyt St.
Lakewood, CO 80215
Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder enjoyed wearing a construction hard hat while touring the new Firefly Autism facility. Her work has appeared in Family Circle, The Daily Beast, The Christian Science Monitor, the “Today Show” website and many other publications.
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