Summit Achievement has been a member of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH) since 2000 (to go to the OBH website, click here). We have participated in ongoing research to promote the field and prove the efficacy of our work. Below is a video recently published by OBH about this work. To see outcome research specific to Summit Achievement, please click here.
For many years, Summit Achievement has been known by professionals as a great placement for clients who struggle with high-functioning autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Level 1. While individuals with this diagnosis are unique more than they are similar, some typical characteristics include:
- Impairment in social functioning
- Difficulty with reading and managing both verbal and non-verbal social cues
- Patterns of repetitive behavior
- Rigid thinking
- Difficulty with transitions
- Sensory and executive functioning challenges
In some cases, a student may enroll with features of ASD but it has been previously unclear if a diagnosis is appropriate. This lack of clarity in a student’s life can often lead to secondary struggles including:
- Social anxiety
- Poor performance in school despite high intelligence
- A lack of close friends and relationships
- Excessive video game or internet use
- Family conflict
- Oppositional behavior
- Substance use
Here are some of the ways in which Summit Achievement works effectively with these students:
Social Skills Development
The teams at Summit Achievement consist of a maximum of 8 students. A team of 8 would have 3 full-time direct care staff and a full-time therapist. The staff and therapist always work to develop rapport and build a relationship with any client that joins the team. This relationship is then the platform from which all therapeutic work is conducted. We want students to feel safe and know that our staff will help keep them both physically and emotionally safe throughout the program. These groups may have a few individuals on the autism spectrum, but will always include students that do not have this diagnosis as well. This creates a more realistic social setting for students on the spectrum to practice social skills. With constant supervision, as well as daily process groups and regular individual therapy, there are many opportunities for students to work on social skills such as active listening, appropriate use of humor, body language, eye contact, and paraverbal communication. Furthermore, the structure of the program provides many proscribed yet socially intense encounters with peers, such as doing assigned chores in the wilderness on a cold morning, working together to make it to the top of a summit, or conducting a process group beneath the stars. The intense, structured therapeutic setting allows for a safe space for students to be themselves and for other students to accept each other’s weaknesses while celebrating the strengths that inevitably emerge. As students move through the level system and new students join the team, each student gets to practice their skills as a leader and teacher for others. We see significant gains in social skills over a 6-8 week period as well as dramatic increases in self-confidence in social situations and correlating decreases in social anxiety.
Cognitive rigidity and a tendency to view things as “all good” or “all bad” can be a hallmark of individuals with ASD, particularly when in a new setting. Summit’s supportive staff are trained to be patient and work with individuals to slowly ease them out of their comfort zone in order to experience new things while challenging patterns of thinking that lead to rigidity. Perhaps the best teacher of this cognitive flexibility is the wilderness. Plans change due to weather, a campsite being taken by another group, a team hiking slower or faster than anticipated or a sudden lightning storm. All of these things require individuals to learn how to adapt, adjust and become more flexible. As individuals with ASD learn to adapt and adjust, and view those around them doing the same, it is the job of the therapist and direct care staff to help these individuals draw on these unique experiences and generalize them. Once these generalizations are realized, the can be connected and applied to experiences each week in the classroom, on a family session or on a family visit.
This also requires that we are flexible when we can be, helping students manage sensory issues, whether around types of food, required clothing, or personal hygiene. It also may require staff intervention around social interactions or allowing an individual to take space. Our staff are trained to work with individuals with ASD and view rigidity as a symptom, rather than as a form of opposition or defiance.
Times of transition and change can be difficult for individuals on the spectrum. Our program is designed to have many natural transitions. Our students transition each week from attending school for three days to going out in the wilderness for four days, and then back again. Direct care staff transition in and out each week. With rolling admission students are often graduating and leaving the team or new students are enrolling. All of these transition points can be stressful for all, but particularly for individuals on the spectrum. In an effort to help our clients manage transitions and change we make sure that all transitions are always accompanied by frontloading, acknowledgment and processing after the fact. By making an individual aware of a coming transition, taking the time to develop a plan of how to manage it, acknowledging when the transition is occurring and then following up afterwards, clients begin to develop the skills to manage transitions and gain confidence in their ability to handle change in the future. Again it becomes the job of the direct care staff and therapist to help individuals generalize this skill to future situations.
It is common for individuals on the spectrum to lack the understanding and knowledge of how to manage their unique selves in the world and many have developed negative coping strategies to help them manage social anxiety. This can often lead to addiction to video-games, internet and/or substances (often marijuana). While at Summit Achievement students will not have access to any of these negative coping strategies and will work with their therapist and staff to gain insight into understanding their addiction, gain insight into the underlying causes of this addiction and develop healthy, positive strategies for the future.
If you have a particular question or a particular case you would like to discuss with us, please click here.
I work for a program located in Maine, but I am not from New England. I’m a southerner, born and raised in North Carolina. In the summer of 2014, I packed up my things (and family) and moved from North Carolina to the White Mountains of New England for the very purpose of working for Summit Achievement as the Admissions Director. It is not uncommon for me to be asked why.
As an outdoor enthusiast, could it be that I wanted to live somewhere that has four real seasons, both Alpine and Nordic skiing, amazing hiking, and beautiful coastline? Well that didn’t hurt. Truthfully, after years of experience working in admissions, I realized that to do my job well and love doing it, the program I represented had to compliment my own passions and beliefs. Due to my personal love of the wilderness along with my background in adventure guiding and working at a therapeutic boarding school, it was very intriguing for me to learn that there was a wilderness therapy program that offered exciting adventure-based expeditions along with a truly individualized and supportive school. Better yet, they were looking for a new Admissions Director. Could that be me?
When you take a job in Admissions, an important question to ask yourself is, “Can I represent this program with integrity, passion and confidence?” I flew to Maine to find out.
When I came to Summit Achievement for the first time, I immediately fell in love with the beautiful setting. I was impressed by the unique hybrid model which offered both school and wilderness, the twenty years of successful programming and outcomes, the compassionate staff, and the commitment of the students. I met staff who had been with the program for over a decade and still loved what they did. Many of the students expressed newfound confidence and a gratitude for the program in which they were participating in. As for other important details, the gear the students were outfitted with was top-notch, the food was tasty and nutritious, the campus was clean and orderly, and the students were clearly well cared for.
It was time to ask the question. Could I represent this program? In the end, my answer was yes.
Making the move to New England certainly came with its own adjustments, yet it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I have the honor of being part of a unique program and a dynamic team. I am also privileged to meet each family I work with in admissions, and witness the results of our program first hand. As a bonus, I get to live in the beautiful White Mountains, where my family and I seek out our own adventures as often as we can.
I hope all is well. Today is a very special day for me. I’m not sure where I was five years ago right now. I’m also not sure where I was three years ago right now. I do know two things though, where I was four years ago, and where I am today. Four years ago today, at this very moment, I was standing on wooden skis participating in a debrief activity with B team, the first activity they did after B and C teams were combined. I was terrified. I was at a new place, with new people, and I had no idea what my future was going to be. Obviously you know what happened from there. Four months and a lot of therapy later, I graduated from Traverse, a new person.
Four years ago today, I could not see a week into the future, because I knew for sure that I was not going to be around then. How I was going to get through Summit was not a question. How I was going to get out was. I did not want to be alive anymore, and that was the only thing that was on my mind. It was so comforting to not have to think further than a few days, because I was 100% sure that I was not going to be around to see the weekend. In no corner of my imagination could I have conjured up the idea that maybe, four years from that moment, I would be sitting on the beach at college writing an email to the person who saved my life.
That leads in to the second thing I know, where I am today. Right now, I am sitting in the sun under a palm tree. I have said it a hundred times, but I want you to know that I would not be here today if it weren’t for you and for Summit. Four years ago, high school was out of the picture. The idea that I would someday go to college was pure fiction. But here I am, because of Summit.
So I guess what I want to say is thank you. The fact that I am where I am today is because of you, and everyone at Summit. I signed up for an Intro to Psychology class the other day because I am majoring in Psychology (and possibly double majoring or minoring in Human Development as well) so I can hopefully help kids as much as you do. Now, instead of not being able to see three days into the future, I am looking a years into the future. Instead of picturing my story ending in a matter of days, I see myself helping kids a decade from now. So thank you.
Now, after three months of being home, I want to write and tell everybody how I am doing. I talked to Nichol earlier today, and I decided to write all of this so I could send it to everyone at Summit. Actually I talked to Nichol yesterday because it is 1:00 AM. I was laying in bed and I got the thought in my head about writing this. And anybody who has worked with me knows that once I get a thought in my head, its in there and its not going to leave me alone. I have been home for a while, and things are going great. Home life has improved so much since before Summit, its insane. Just writing about my thoughts the night before I went to Summit was crazy. Those things that I wrote about, the cutting, the suicidal thoughts, not liking my family, they all seem so foreign to me. I am happy right now. I have confidence in myself, and I am proud of who I am. I do not think of killing myself. That thought is just so out of my reality. I am happy. That is something I thought I would never say, before I went to Summit. The change that has been made is astounding. I love myself now. Before Summit I didn’t even like myself. I destroyed my body, and my mind. I like my family again. They are so amazing and now that I love myself I can love them. All in all, I am 1,000,000 times better than I was before I went to Summit. I cannot thank everybody there enough. I hope all of the people who I worked with there read this. All of you are my family. You stuck with me through tough times and through good. You helped me reach my full potential as a brother, son, friend, and person. I cannot thank each and every one of you enough.
School is going very well. I love my school, and I have made some very good friends there already. I was in the winter performance of Beauty and the Beast, and I loved it. I am doing drama currently, again. We are putting on a show called Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Show. It should be really cool. I play a part of an undercover detective. I love doing drama, and the community there is amazing. I got all A’s and one B on my report card for the winter trimester. I am very proud of myself. The anxiety around school is minimal also, which is amazing. I can actually enjoy going to school, and seeing people, without being ready to throw up every time I walk through the front doors.
This correspondence was used with the express permission of the student
Also, you can click here to read testimonials from parents about their experiences with Summit Achievement
Most of us imagine wilderness therapy to be weeks in the woods. Often, if “academic courses” are offered, they are facilitated in an environment that is far from the formal school and classroom experience and often do not align with a student’s course and credit needs. Journaling around a campfire, exploring flora and fauna along the trail, learning about the history of a national forest while hiking are all valuable learning experiences but during this time students are falling behind while the school year moves forward or while summer school is taking place. At Summit Achievement we make time for both a traditional classroom experience and adventures into the wilderness. Rather than merging both, we divide the week – three days in the classroom, four days in the wilderness.
A formal school and classroom experience is important for students participating in wilderness therapy as they are able to practice transferring the growing skills in communication, respect, problem-solving, team-work, confidence, self-reliance, and responsibility to the classroom weekly. They have therapists, guides, and teachers on-campus to discuss those experiences and help them bridge the gap from wilderness to school; they are supported in harnessing the strength and grit they have proven to possess in the wilderness and applying it to challenges in the classroom. Offering teenagers the opportunity weekly to spend time in the wilderness and in school with a therapeutic-centered approach is an experience we truly believe can help families and students break free from barriers and challenges, such as school-avoidance and refusal.
Now you’re probably wondering how a wilderness program can offer a formal school experience when new students are enrolling every week or month and ages range from 7th to 12th grade. A blended learning approach allows for a formal school day and rotating classroom schedule. Blended learning utilizes online courses so that students can begin their courses any time of year and move at their own pace. They are enrolled in courses that best suit their current level and current semester and that most closely match what they were most recently studying. These online courses are blended with in-classroom teachers supporting students with one-to-one coaching and instruction which allows flexibility in identifying and practicing interventions, tools, and strategies for overcoming a wide variety of learning and classroom-based challenges.
At Summit Achievement, we make the most of the three-day school week providing structure with a daily schedule that rotates through English, math, social studies, and science classes. Any of these subjects can be swapped for a world language or elective if needed. Students also attend study hall in the evenings four days a week. Short-term and long-term goals are set weekly to keep students on-track while adjusting these goals as scaffolding is reduced. These goals are set with an academic advisor and they are shared with therapists, parents, educational consultants, and schools so there can be a team approach to planning for the student’s “next steps”.
Check out our upcoming blogs about the school-avoidant student and specific ways blended learning can be used as an intervention to help students re-engage in the classroom experience.
For 21 years Summit Achievement, a hybrid wilderness therapy and residential treatment program located in Maine, has operated during the holidays. Those outside of the field may think it is a difficult time to be enrolled or working at a treatment program, but that is not the case, as we have honed our model through years of experience in all areas including the holidays! Summit, being a relationally driven program, focuses on family inclusion no matter what time of year. Families, students, staff and faculty report that the holidays at Summit have been especially meaningful to them over the years.
For Thanksgiving, students at Summit Achievement celebrate at the main lodge by having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with families invited to attend for the day. The students and staff will head out on an abbreviated expedition on Saturday and return to campus on Sunday. For the Summit Traverse team, some students may go on a home visit (with clinician/educational consultant/parent approval).
Hanukkah is celebrated with a daily lighting of the menorah. Over the years Summit has also had a rabbi come to campus. Families may also have a visit (with approval as above) with their child to celebrate the holiday.
Christmas is celebrated on campus at the main lodge with a special late day dinner and each student being given gifts from their families. Much of the day is spent sledding, building snow people, or watching appropriate holiday movies. Some students may go to a local church to celebrate the holiday. Families are also invited to attend the dinner, and celebration, or take their child off campus for an overnight visit to stay at one of the local inns in the beautiful Mount Washington Valley. The Summit Traverse team students may go home for a visit during Christmas or have a visit in town.
Summit has found that celebrating a simple holiday filled with love and support is one of the ways to foster healing for families and young people.
Okay, let’s be honest with ourselves, it can be scary making the choice to send your child to wilderness therapy. Now add in the fact that you may need to make this decision during the winter months and you can get overwhelmed. Yet there are tremendous benefits and opportunities that your child can gain from these experiences, and it’s important to try to look past the fear that can be associated with cold weather. Here at Summit Achievement we fully understand your concern. We have been operating continuously in New England for over 21 years and have honed the skills necessary to manage this climate safely.
To make your child’s experience one in which they will be challenged but ultimately find success, we take several steps to address the winter elements. First, we are not a traditional primitive-skills based, full-wilderness program; rather we are a hybrid model with a mountaineering style emphasis. We train our staff to make safe, conservative judgments when it comes to managing the winter environment. Our youth are outfitted in the most up-to-date wilderness equipment designed specifically for the conditions your child will find themselves in. Our staff will teach your child the best way to use their gear (suppliers include Marmot and Outdoor Research) to stay safe and comfortable in the woods. Along with this equipment, we plan our outings on a weekly basis allowing us to get accurate weather forecasts for the coming trip and plan the itinerary accordingly. One aspect of winter camping we actively manage is frostbite. We do this safely through a handful of redundant systems like proper education on how to prevent it, using equipment designed for the environment, making hot chocolate or tea, and staff checking each student’s fingers and toes every day to make sure that their extremities are warm and dry. When the weather is at its worst, we have three wood-stove heated shelters strategically placed around our main campus in Stow, Maine. The shelters provide protection from the elements and the wood-burning stoves help everyone keep warm and dry.
The woods during the winter months are often some of the most beautiful and serene settings you can find. As we enter our 22nd winter, we are ready to provide a safe, impactful wilderness experience for your child like we have for so many others.
Throughout most of Summit’s history we have required that all students enroll willingly, or at least reluctantly. This has meant that they arrive with their parents and are willing to get out of the car and participate in the enrollment process, despite maybe not being thrilled about the prospect of 6-8 weeks in a wilderness therapy program. This position of ours regarding transported students is in stark contrast to the rest of the field of wilderness therapy that routinely takes kids by professional transport. We are now changing our position and will accept certain students (see below) through assisted enrollment.
Most wilderness therapy programs have many of their students enroll via youth transportation services. What this looks like is skilled professionals who will show up at the student’s home, usually early in the morning, and take them, either willingly or unwillingly, to begin treatment. The reputable transport companies are skilled at minimizing the potential traumatic effects of this process, and this service helps families that feel their child will benefit greatly from a wilderness program but cannot get them to agree to get on a plane or in the car.
In turning to the research that exists, outcomes of students enrolling in wilderness programs resistant to treatment has been studied, and the results caused us as a program to reconsider our stance(OBH Research Findings: Engaging Resistant Clients | Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council). Over the last few years we have allowed a few students to enroll by transport when they meet the following specific criteria:
- Their primary treatment issue is depression and/or anxiety
- They are only oppositional and defiant in the home
- They have a track record of being compliant and respectful outside of the home
In these instances, we have allowed students to come via transport, and in tracking outcomes of these enrollments we have realized that they often are very favorable. Thus, we have decided as an organization that we will allow students that meet the above criteria to arrive at Summit Achievement by a professional transportation service.