By Emma Castleberry
Full Spectrum Farms (FSF) is a 34-acre organic farm in Cullowhee that provides free weekly programs for individuals with autism and their families. Their services include adult life skills camps, children’s occupational therapy camps, art therapy, exercise, caregiver workshops, parent support meetings, social events and sensory-sensitive celebrations. “Our vision includes addressing the disparity of services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in rural mountain communities and working with clients to achieve greater independence,” says executive director Erin McManus.
The predictable routine of a farm environment can be particularly well-suited to someone with sensory challenges. “Though seasons change and Mother Nature can be surprising, our gardens and livestock require daily, weekly and seasonal rituals that change slowly and rarely,” says McManus. Interaction with livestock can assist people on the spectrum with social and emotional development. “Farms also provide an environment with very little human-created stimulation—noise pollution, crowds, electronic stimulants—which many of our clients are sensitive to,” says McManus.
Before COVID-19, the farm was serving nearly 300 people impacted by ASD every year. In March, all FSF services went virtual. “Working with people who may have communication issues via Zoom or other platforms is difficult, and the lack of reliable internet access in our service region compounds this difficulty,” says McManus.
Adjusting to the new normal of our pandemic world has been hard on everyone, but particularly so for those on the spectrum. “The autism community of Western North Carolina has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent response to slow the spread,” says McManus.
“Change in routine has led many of our clients to experience increased anxiety and depression, and to display disruptive or aggressive behavior. The families that we serve have been very clear that they are finding it difficult to manage the stress brought on by the pandemic.” When FSF conducted a survey for its clients, 90 percent reported that their relative on the spectrum was experiencing a decrease in communication skills and an increase in anxiety.
Nancy Mauldin, whose adult daughter Michelle is on the spectrum, says the pandemic has been uniquely upsetting for her. “She likes to go to the store and her part-time job and other places, which she can’t do as often now,” says Mauldin. Michelle was first introduced to FSF when she attended a pottery class in the organization’s early days. “Michelle has a lot of sensory problems, so clay was not her first choice of something to do, but she kept going and discovered other things,” says Mauldin.
Michelle started painting and selling her artwork at FSF events. “It made Michelle very happy to know that someone besides her mother would buy them,” says Mauldin. “FSF has given Michelle a lot of confidence and it gets her out to relate to other people. She likes going there because she is comfortable with everyone.”
Kim Corzine, a volunteer at the farm, has an adult son on the autism spectrum. She started volunteering at FSF after her son moved into a residential facility six years ago. “Because I was his constant caregiver, I found myself at a loss when he moved away,” she says. “I had the time and intrinsic motivation to start volunteering at the farm.” Her time volunteering has helped her understand “that ASD is indeed a spectrum disorder,” she says. “Many of the clients are very high-functioning with special talents. Being around others with ASD helps me appreciate and love my son even more.”
In addition to returning to its regular programming as soon as possible, another immediate goal for the farm is the construction of a town hall facility that will expand space and ultimately allow for more programming. Long-term goals at the farm include a residential facility for adults with ASD. “This time away from offering services has really demonstrated that FSF is central in the lives of so many people, including my own,” says McManus. “Our services provide a sense of connection, community, happiness and purpose that has been greatly missed by so many in recent months. There is a constant need for therapy that can safely, effectively and consistently reach anyone with ASD in our community. At FSF, we strongly believe that neurodiversity should be celebrated, embraced and better understood among all community members. ”
The Farm is now offering weather-contingent art therapy classes for teens, adults and children in the outdoor pavilion, as well as individual counseling services and some online caregiver workshops. The farm’s annual fundraiser, Starlight Night, has been moved online. For more information, visit FullSpectrumFarms.org.