Anderson Center for Autism’s Cutting-Edge Treatment

Dutchess County’s Anderson Center for Autism is changing the way the world handles the puzzling disorder

The Anderson Center was at the cutting edge of treating special needs children when it opened back in 1924, on 150 wooded acres near the Hudson River, just south of Rhinebeck. 

Ninety years ago, however, the kids weren’t called special needs. The language was, well, politically incorrect. Parents sent their “problem children” to Anderson for difficulties like fanciful lying, bedwetting, and bullying. More alarming still were the “juvenile delinquents,” prone to petty theft, skipping school, staying out late, and having sex.  

“There were a lot of troublemakers,” says Neil Pollack, Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism. “That’s their words, not mine!”  

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At the time, schooling options for special needs children were scarce. But those sent to Anderson were more fortunate than most. There they fell under the care of psychiatrist and founder Dr. Victor V. Anderson. A leading figure in the ultra-progressive child guidance movement, he believed in treatment, not punishment (he wrote that “character is something largely molded by the environment”) to turn “unmanageable” children into productive adults using “personality training” behavioral techniques.

Today, Dr. Anderson’s legacy lives on at Anderson, which  eventually transformed into the Anderson Center For Autism, having narrowed its focus to educating only students with autism, as opposed to the wider range of emotionally and developmentally challenged students it once served. To get into the school, applicants need a primary diagnosis of autism along with intellectual disabilities; Anderson accepts only students who possess an IQ of 70 or less. But Anderson remains on the cutting edge in terms of facilities, methods, and outcomes. 

Were there any autistic children at the original Anderson School, 90 years ago? It’s likely. But there is no way to know. Autism wasn’t identified as a disorder until 1943, and in the early years it was rare, affecting just one in 10,000. But autism has grown at an alarming rate in recent decades. The most recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify one in 68 American children as being on the spectrum. The rate is even higher for boys — one in 42. Federal law requires that children with special needs be provided “free and appropriate public education,” so students attend Anderson at no cost, and the New York State Office for Children and Family Services covers the cost of residency.

anderson center of autism painting
The Anderson Center for Autism offers students a range of educational opportunities — painting among them

One hundred and twenty-four students live on campus, or Anderson Village as it’s known — a tidy, planned community dotted with yellow and green homes set on a rolling green lawn. Another 14 students commute from home.  

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It was the 1988 movie Rain Man that first brought autism into the national spotlight. In recent years, though, the condition has become something of a national obsession, not least because of its explosive growth, the source of which has confounded the medical community. And it becomes all the more complicated when you consider the seemingly ubiquitousness of the diagnosis; autism is a spectrum disorder and encompasses an enormous range of manifestations. A neurological disorder whose symptoms include difficulties with language and social interactions, those suffering from autism have a tendency toward repetitive or ritualistic behavior. There is  often a sensory component, such as hypersensitivity or an unusually high pain threshold. 

Dr. Sudi Kash, Ph.D., the chief clinical officer at the Anderson Center, says there is no single known cause for autism. Genetics play a role, but it is not sufficient to explain its rapid growth. “We’ve seen theories about a variety of things — overdiagnosis, environmental toxins, nutrition, gut bacteria, inflammation of the brain. You name it and they are looking at it.” 

One thing is certain: “There is no cure.”

Given the growing demand for services, Anderson’s board of trustees voted in 1999 to become one of the first organizations in the country to exclusively focus on people with autism.

But Anderson’s facilities were badly outdated. Pollack, recruited as CEO in 2001, made a dramatic recommendation — raze the old structures and build from scratch. A multi-phase Master Site Plan took 10 years to implement. “We tore apart the whole campus and created Anderson Village by investing $35 million,” says Pollack. The number of employees grew from 300 to 800, and the annual budget more than doubled, from $17 million to $52 million. “Today it’s a stunning place, and people come from all over the world to see what we do.” 

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“We call our model Lifelong Learning,” says Pollack. “We educate the children not just in the classroom, but when they’re [in their residences] and during play. We layer into it incredible opportunities, like pet therapy, music, art, sports, and after-school activities like fishing, drama, and French club.” 

Grouped together by age, functioning level, and gender, eight students live together in a residence on campus. Everyone has his or her own bedroom and a shared living space, and staff is on hand 24/7.

There are three functioning levels. Explains Director of Program Services Kathleen Marshall, it’s a matter of independence: “Is the student able to independently go from one point to another without a staff person right next to him?  Can he advocate for himself with some form of functional communication, for example letting people know he has to go to the bathroom?”  A level one student might be learning fundamental skills like hygiene, communication, and social independence, whereas a level three, the highest, requires minimal staff supervision, has mastered communication skills, and might be on to some form of vocational training. But progress varies on a case-by-case basis. “People with autism tend to have splinter skills,” says Marshall. “They can be higher in one category and lower in another.”  

To advance students, Anderson uses applied behavioral analysis or ABA (previously known as behavior modification), considered the gold standard for treating autism. With ABA, desired behavior is reinforced through reward, determined by what motivates a particular individual — and it’s not just snacks or treats. “People think autistic kids don’t want any kind of social interaction, but that’s not true,” says Eliza Bozenski, director of agency affairs. “Time with a preferred staff member is a popular reward.” 

anderson center for autism

In some ways, the school is like any other. Kids shoot baskets in the gym. They move excitedly between classes. At lunchtime, they line up hungrily in the cafeteria. But in other ways, there are stark reminders of the students’ conditions: during periods between classes, there is little eye contact. And many students on the lunch line need assistance grabbing utensils. Some students require one-on-one supervision. But the most profound differences are on display inside the classroom, where class sizes are small. The student-to-teacher ratio is 6:1, and there are an average of 3.5 aides in each class, or direct support professionals (DSPs).

In one classroom, a group of Tier 3 (age 17–21), Level 2 (intermediate) students sit at a U-shaped table, with the teacher in the middle so she can keep their attention. Using a big screen Smart Board, the teacher displays the words “migrate,” “ocean,” and “plain” with a definition and photograph. The students find the picture and word on a sticker, often with the help of a DSP, then paste it to a piece of paper. The lesson gets more advanced as a map with migrating geese appears, along with questions about their direction and the geographical landmarks they pass. 

One student has the clear ability to read and answer questions correctly. Most of the boys can’t talk, so they work with the pictures. Part of the lesson is about keeping students engaged and focused on the teacher and the task. For instance, one student jumps up to go to the bathroom in the middle of class, but this is clearly a game, and a large, middle-aged male DSP gets him back to his seat in short order. “First class, then the bathroom,” he says. The young man smiles, then wriggles back to his seat. 

These are the older students, so they’re not going to be heading into the regular workforce when they graduate at age 21. Most of them will be going to live in group homes that Anderson owns throughout Dutchess, Ulster, and Orange counties. Graduates live five to a house, and continue the Lifelong Learning program in a more independent (though still fully supervised) adult setting.

To make sure they’re ready, Anderson sets up one classroom like an apartment, where students learn how to make a bed, do laundry, and prepare food. In a pre-vocational workshop, students learn sequencing, sorting, and assembly, along with basic work skills like following directions and completing a task. On-campus job training in clerical tasks, cleaning, food service, and delivering supplies helps them ramp up their skills, which are fully tested in outside volunteer jobs at the Culinary Institute of America, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and other local businesses. The goal is that they’ll be able to have jobs like this when they reach adulthood. 

Anderson’s Lifelong Learning philosophy extends to its 800 employees, most of whom are DSPs (Direct Support Professionals) who work hands-on with the kids. DSP is usually a minimum-wage job, but Anderson pays DSPs according to the number of college credits they have — and gives them a raise when they earn more. 

“Our average DSP earns $16.50 an hour and has 56 college credits,” says Pollack. “We want them to go to school, in whatever field they want — accounting, journalism, rocket science — even if it takes them away from Anderson. The more we can create a thinking person who is self-directed, the better they will do on the job.”  

Clearly, Anderson Center for Autism is working well on many levels — as an employer, as a growing business, as a socially conscious organization. But its greatest success resides in the people it serves.

“We want them to be able to generalize their skills throughout all their experiences in life,” says Pollack. “And we want it to be fun.”

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