The following Summit Blog Post is the lightly edited transcripts of the Autism and Neurodiversity Podcast hosted by Jason and Debbie Grygla. This episode is with Nichol Ernst, our executive director, in which he talks about how Summit Achievement works with young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Non-Verbal Learning Disorders. To listen to this episode titled click “Safe Struggle with Nichol Ernst” or read the transcripts below.
Jason and Debbie Grygla: Welcome to the Autism and Neurodiversity Podcast. We’re here to bring you helpful information from leading experts and give you effective tools and support. I’m Jason Grygla, a licensed counselor and founder of Techie for Life, a specialized mentoring program for neurodiverse young adults. And I’m Debbie Grygla, a certified life coach, and maybe most importantly, we’re also parents to our own atypical young adults. Hello friends. Welcome. So we have Nichol Ernst with us. Welcome to our show.
Nichol Ernst: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Debbie: Thanks for being here. So I want to tell our audience a little bit about you. So this is Nicole and he is the executive director and co-owner of Summit Achievement. Summit Achievement is a wilderness program in the white mountains of Maine. He’s on the opposite end of the country from us out in Utah. And he’s worked at Summit Achievement for 17 years as a guide staff, a therapist, the clinical director, and the executive director, and despite the different roles that he’s had, he’s always refused to give up his client caseload.
Jason: Yeah, which I think is really cool because you can get into administrative positions and just lose your touch, lose your aid who got in this to be an administrator. I was back several times on purpose and your program, your program takes teenagers up to age 2013 neuro-typical and neurodiverse students, or I guess you call them clients. I don’t know what you refer to them as, but yeah, clients, students either way. Can you tell us about your population?
Nichol: I would say kind of our, our overarching umbrella of who we work with is typically kids with depression and anxiety. And then there’s going to be a lot of maybe issues that lead to where is that depression and anxiety coming from, whether that’s some kind of neurodiversity or being on the autism spectrum or NLD, or you know, maybe it’s ADHD or an undiagnosed learning disability of some kind that maybe hasn’t been discovered yet, or a student hasn’t learned how to work with, right.
Jason: And anxiety and depression are, are for sure the most common mental health secondary issues that our students deal with. As neuro-diverse teenagers and young adults, a lot of times we see ADHD and OCD as well obsessive-compulsive traits, for sure. Yeah. That’s why we had you on your show on our show. So first of all, you have a very solid reputation in our industry. Everyone that knows Nichol and appreciates respects and admires you for what you do, what you’ve done. You’ve, you’ve built a great reputation for yourself.
Nichol: Thanks for that. And for all the things that are nice to know, you know, when you’re hiding in a corner of Maine, you don’t always know that. So that’s nice to hear.
Jason: So I got to ask, did you get your name, Nichol?
Nichol: It’s a great question. So my parents are kind of witty. Maybe it’s part of it. But I was born premature, so, so my legal name is Nicholas. And when I was born, I was about two and a half pounds, two collapsed lungs, and spent like a month in, intensive care and they wouldn’t let me leave until I weighed five pounds. So when they finally let me leave, that kind of became my nickname, that stuck.
And I’ve just sort of always been in when I was five pounds, five pounds. So I’ve been nickel ever since. Great.
Debbie: So I love that. I read a fun fact about you, that you have a farm or you raised pigs and chickens and goats and two small children.
Nichol: Yeah, yep. You know, the animals stay in the barn and the kids stay in the house, but otherwise, there’s a lot of similarities I think. And, you know, being a farmer and, and I don’t know if I can say this on a podcast, but I call myself more of a half-ass homesteader. Right. It’s not something that I do well, I’m not a gentleman farmer. Doesn’t quite get it but really I use farming a lot as a metaphor with clients or to kind of prove points or make examples. It’s really easy to talk about expenses and learning boundaries and things like that. It’s, it’s an approachable way to be human without having to share a whole lot about myself. Right.
Jason: It sounds like your stress relievers too, as a therapist and working in this industry can be intense. And especially if you’re passionate like you are I do a lot of, yeah.
Nichol: There’s something about you know, therapy is not always the most tangibly rewarding at the end of the day. So to go home and fix a fence. Right. And you can feel good about that. Yeah. Yeah. The animals are fed. Yeah.
Jason: Being able to go back and tell you about how some of the students are doing that, that you’ve worked with, that you sent to, to Techie for Life. And because I know as a therapist, I don’t know where they go or how they do. And it’s nice to get a note, to get the end of a story or an update on the story. So anyone who’s listening, if you’ve had a provider mentor therapist, or anybody in your life or your child’s life that made a big difference, send them a text, send them a note, an email. It will make their day.
Nichol: It is gold, right. To get that email. Or some of them might even say it. And I’m like, I’m going to read this on that day when I really need this.
Jason: Well, I got a whole file just of those.
Nichol: You know, the best thing we ever started doing at Summit is we have an annual reunion where we invite all of our alumni back. And it’s awesome to see who shows up 10 years later, 20 years later to come back and tell us how we impacted them in some way. And, you know, might be sitting there being like, I think we asked that kid to leave but somehow was impactful to them. And they wanted to come back and tell us about how much they learned.
Jason: Yeah. It’s funny. They stay in contact when they’re happy and doing well. And they seem to disappear when they’re ashamed and embarrassed. That seems like a conflict as well. Sometimes. Well, tell us.
Nichol: Sometimes. And that was when people ask me about outcomes, right. And of course, we track all of our outcomes and do all those things. But one of the outcomes I give parents a lot is I have now seen over a dozen Summit Achievement tattoos on alumni. Or it has somehow included our logo or something where I’m like, wow,
Jason: Tell me it’s your face on there?
Nichol: No, I haven’t seen that yet.
Jason: Well, it’ll come to tell us a little bit about some of the Summit Achievement and what it is. A lot of our parents have never heard of a wilderness program. They really don’t know what the goal is. They think military school, they think boot camp or they, or they think, you know, death and near-death experiences with dehydration and marches. So what is it that you do? Cause this might be the first time a lot of parents have heard about a wilderness.
Nichol: That is a great question. And frankly, I think if you get on the internet and the field of people who call themselves, you know, wilderness therapy programs have not always done a great job. And so some of those things that parents may be afraid of have occurred in this field, especially, you know, a couple of decades ago. So what I always encourage families to think about when they’re looking at wilderness programs is to look for OBH is the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. And we have accreditation through the Association of Experiential Education. And I always say that you know, the most reputable wilderness programs are the ones that carry that AEE accreditation through. And it’s a really great place to look at programs that are safe and, you know, have really let other people come in and observe them and go through that accreditation process.
Debbie: I’ll link to that in our show notes.
Jason: I have to say my experience lately in the last five or 10 years is that the wilderness, the wilderness program field or culture environment has come so far. And if there’s a bad program where it gets out quickly and there they’re out of business and I don’t, it’s so competitive now that only the best programs survive, those who really do a good job because there’s anything and everything you can find on the internet, people talk and it’s 20 years ago that eggs survived some, but they can’t do that anymore. I think that’s a good thing.
Nichol: You know, we are, we are 25 years old, which I think in the world of schools and boarding schools in the Northeast doesn’t sound very old, but I think it, us that I believe the third oldest wilderness program in the country, that’s still operating. Right.
Jason: One of the other, I think, is it, the oldest one was at Anasazi. Cause that’s where I worked.
Nichol: Anasazi and Red Cliff are older than us. Yeah.
Jason: Yep. And I was a trail guide for wilderness. I love wilderness. I can’t say enough about it. I’m sure I’ll share my opinions, but I’d love to hear from you please.
Nichol: Why would you send your kid to wilderness? You know, I think for many clients, especially neuro-diverse clients like going and doing talk therapy, it just, it’s not all always working. Right. You can go into a therapist’s office for an hour a week and you know, maybe not really have the language or know how to talk about what’s going on for you. You can just not say anything about what’s happening for you, or you can tell the therapist what you think they want to hear it and then go back to doing whatever you want. Right? Like a lot of times, it’s tricky to get particularly adolescents to engage and find value in that process. One of the great advantages of taking people out of the wilderness is that you just can’t hide who you really are, right?
There’s something about hiking and maybe being a little cold or a little uncomfortable or a little hungry and having to be part of a team and a group that, you know, just who you really are and both your strengths and your weaknesses come out much more. So as a clinician, you know, you get all this feedback and data about your clients that you would never get in an outpatient setting, or even in a really comfortable residential setting. So to speak, to safety and some of those other things as you brought up there’s also a great link. That’d be you’re to link things. OBH has a research center and there’s a lot of studies that have actually shown that, that participating in Outdoor Behavioral Health or wilderness programs is significantly safer than most high school sports. And most kids are actually safer in a wilderness program than they are at home
Jason: Especially with their parents who are about to go off the cliff or they’re at their wit’s end. Right.
Nichol: Yeah. And, and, you know, I would even challenge during this time of COVID-19, a lot of adolescents are having a more normative experience here on our programs and they might be at home because of restrictions and things like that. So, you know, so safety is obviously paramount, but it’s a lot of perceived risk, right. And, and what we often talk about is a safe struggle. This idea that I can be pushed a bit out of my comfort zone because I don’t have access to my technology and I’m out in the woods and I have to sleep out here and maybe there are some bugs and some things that are certainly physically uncomfortable. But you know, it’s by working through safe struggle that we learn how to overcome adversity, right? If, if all of the challenges that exist on our life’s path are removed for us, we never learn or strengthen the muscles that are necessary to overcome the challenges that come our way. And, and so there is that. I think where wilderness is so powerful. There’s just a lot of research too, that just people being in the outdoors has some effects on anxiety when you mix in some clinicians and a treatment plan. And a lot of intention with that, I think it kind of takes that, that experience and, and, you know, accelerates it that much more.
Jason: Maybe sometimes imagine that their child or that they’re going to be out there kind of just wandering around may be trying to find food. And I love the, you use the word intentional that is so important and to be a good wilderness program these days, intentionality, I can’t tell parents how much work goes on behind the scenes for every client that comes into one of these specialized programs like wilderness. What I look for or what I look for from a wilderness program for our students coming in, or for what I want for young adults is one they need, they need to learn. They can do hard things. Resilience is huge. And if they go to the wilderness first, that resilience comes out and we see what they really can do. How much can you push them? How much can they bend and flex, their rigidity gets shown, like you said, their buttons.
So rigidity is a big one, willingness submissiveness. And we look at submissive as maybe a negative word in our culture, but the reality is to jump through the hoops and go to work or to jump through the hoops and do the dishes when you’re supposed to that’s, that’s not submissiveness in a weak way that takes a lot of maturity and responsibility. So I looked for those two things. One of our favorite sayings is “get out of your comfort zone, but not overwhelmed.” We don’t want to be in crises, but we want them to think they could be, or we want them right on that edge for change to occur.
Nichol: Exactly because we don’t change when we’re comfortable. Right. There’s no reason to, so it takes a little bit of discomfort, I think, to push us to think about the other piece I would add for families who are new to wilderness is it’s just very, basically, there are, you know, different models of how wilderness programs work and, and very generally there’s more of a primitive skills model, which tends to be more prevalent at where you all are in Utah, where, you know, it is a bit more nomadic and sort of traveling in the desert and, you know, more primitive gear and things like that. Whereas out here on the East Coast where the weather maybe is a little more extreme you know, we’re doing much more of a mountaineering kind of Outward Bound based expedition model, where our kids have much more high tech, modern gear, and we’re doing more kind of somebody in peaks and going from point a to point B and then just a little bit different.
And, and to, to talk a little bit more specifically about Summit for a second, because our model is relevant in that when we started back in 1996, you know, that there were a lot of wilderness programs where kids were in the woods all the time or out in the desert and of the things that our founders struggled with was seeing those kids then try and translate those skills back to, you know, say a Boarding School in New England or, or just a normal school environment that the ability to translate those skills didn’t always exist. And there had been no practice. So Summit at its very inception. You know, I like to say we’ve had a hybrid model longer than Toyota because we beat the Prius by a couple of years. And you know, so what our clients do is they’re in school three days a week, and then they go out in the woods four days a week.
And, and for us, it’s always been so important to have that, you know, you go and have this transformative experience in the wilderness, but what really matters is how do you apply that to Monday morning? How do you apply that to school? And I think even more so as we talk about neurodiverse clients you know, a lot of times the metaphor of wilderness is going to be lost on them. Right. And it’s, how do I take, you know, exactly what I learned or this skill set and apply it, right? How do I come back and do this in school and do family sessions and have to get up and get out of bed in a comfortable, warm cabin at the same time, as you know, how do I translate that to going back into the wilderness? And so that sort of “Dunk and Dry” model is what Kurt Hanh the founder of Outward Bound called it. I think it’s just been crucial to our program since it’s
Jason: How, how long has someone in a wilderness program typically?
Nichol: Our average is about 8 weeks. I think the average nationally for wilderness programs is a little bit higher than that. 8 to 12 weeks, 10 to 12 is probably more the average of most programs.
Jason: Why not more? Why not less? Why 8 weeks?
Nichol: So for us, we have a, we have six levels because as part of our piece of helping clients in our model is, is we really believe that one of the challenges for a lot of kids, especially with anxiety, is handling the challenges that life throws at, right. And being overwhelmed sometimes by all the responsibilities that I have. So we have very clear expectations for our clients and we kind of hand them on day one, here are all the things we’re going to expect you to accomplish, to graduate from this program and we are going to help you do it. And it’s overwhelming and we’re going to practice breaking it down and all the executive functioning skills that, that maybe come with, you know, dealing with this right. Sort of similar to a syllabus at the beginning of the semester. If you look at all those assignments, it’s really overwhelming, but as we learned how to break it down and take it one step at a time. So our students kind of are the masters of their own length of stay. If they do the six levels in six weeks, they can leave in six weeks. And so we really want to give them that power to do that some ways, which is different than other models that sort of withholding future information and sort of say, you know, you’re here to do your process and don’t about,
Jason: And a really good system that I’ve seen is a really good system. If you can tell it is a good system, because the levels that the students accomplish or clients accomplish are based more on how they are not just paperwork and what they do and how they’ve become or changing willfulness, belonging, and attachment. And so when there are checklists of things they can do, they can just coast through the steps and check the boxes.
Nichol: I think it’s a mix of both, right? Because I think part of life, I mean, most of our kids are leaving us to go back to school. Right. And part of being in school is kind of checklists and assignments. Right. But of course the therapeutic nature of what we do, you know, is a lot more of those less tangible things. So, the way our level system is set up is at the earlier levels, a lot of it is a little more concrete one, so that kids learn the skills, they need to be able to be successful in the backcountry. But also it gets that buy-in right. Like I’m accomplishing things and maybe I haven’t had a lot of accomplishments and praise and reports in a while. And then as we get that buy-in, and they built a better relationship with us after a couple of weeks, the work becomes much more kind of generalized and focused on citizen and how are they doing, showing empathy and initiative and some of these other things,
Jason: How do you know what a successful outcome looks like for you? You have outcome studies. What does that look like when they come out of wilderness?
Nichol: So, so we’ve been tracking our outcomes since the late nineties and when we compile all of that data and then it’s on our website you know, we use the Youth Outcome Questionnaire, which is a questionnaire that’s been kind of universally adopted through OBH and, and NATSAP programs, which is the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. It is measuring of symptoms, right. And, and what parents and clients are identifying. And what we see is, is most clients come in pretty acute, right? They’re, they’re struggling. When they come to wilderness, that’s what sort of precipitates coming here at discharge they’re often feeling fantastic, right? They’ve sort of had that realization and they’re feeling great. And then what we see is about six months out, maybe they’re struggling a little bit more than the day of discharge, but doing much better than intake. And about a year out, they tend to be closer to where they were at discharge. Right. It sort of takes time. That’s sort of the more concrete measure. So we see a significant reduction in symptoms and clients’ ability to navigate the challenges and, you know, relapses that come as they head out.
Debbie: So I’m wondering, and I know this is a, a question that a lot of parents like have and struggled with and how, and I’m wondering how you guys handle it with how do approach if you have students or clients that are under the neuro-diverse umbrella and then like the regular neuro-typical population, are they combined, you separate them out? How do you handle that? I know it’s always a thing that comes up.
Nichol: We are a really small program. I mean, we are, we are full at 24 to 28 students max ever. And so we don’t, we don’t necessarily separate it, you know, more sort of neuro-typical from neuro-diverse students. And I think one of the things that I think is so effective for neuro-diverse clients is many of them struggle with social skills and struggle to get the, maybe, maybe helpful constructive feedback that would be useful for them to learn. Because so often if you like these clients struggle to maybe, maybe they can realize that they made a mistake socially, but they don’t always know what they did. And it can be really hard for them to figure out how to translate this experience to the next experience that maybe to an observer, it might look really similar, but often to them looks totally different for some reason.
And so having a mixed group where there are kids that maybe have some more typical social skills and the structure to be able to provide that feedback in the moment or that day, where a client can really start to learn you know, some of their patterns or some of the things that proceed, because I think what happens so often with our neuro-diverse clients is, you know, maybe they’ve connected with some adults who they feel really comfortable with. You care a lot that like, “Oh, you know, they’re great with adults, but they don’t have any friends.” And a big piece of that I think is that adults sometimes are willing to forgive the social missteps that their peers are not. And, and outside of a program, their peers can just walk away or not interacting with them or not include them. But in a program, they’re stuck together in a place where, you know, their peers are going to see the strengths of this kid, right.
And what they’re able to contribute and offer, but also recognize that, Hey, maybe one of the things that he’s working on is how he communicates how he’s feeling or how he, you know, interacts socially. And that’s something we can help him with and give him some feedback on. So to have daily process groups and individualized therapeutic goals where for example, can have a client get feedback every day on his use of tone, tact, and timing, right. Or some of that pair of verbal communication that so often, or neuro-diverse kids don’t even acknowledge exists without some education and teaching them some of those things.
Jason: I’m going to have to use that now Tone, Tact, and Timing.
Nichol: Right. And then just breaking it down for them. I often have them give definitions of tone, tact, and timing to their peers, and asking them to ask their peers, how am I doing with these things? And the team gets into it. You know, it’s a really concrete way, because for example, if I have a client who may be struggling in the relationship with their parents, or maybe has been acting out listening, substance use, that’s not coming up every moment of every day in our program. But boy, a client who struggles with social skills or interactions with others, we’re going to get so much grist for the mill on a daily basis to help them process them.
Debbie: I love that. Yeah, that was great. And you, and you even spoke to like how you incorporate that peer feedback. Because I think for a lot in this population, they really have struggled with peer relationships and being bullied and, and to be able to receive peer feedback that is useful.
Jason: We love involving peer feedback because it’s easier for them to see the flaws in others more than themselves. So you start with making them give feedback to their peers. And then after a while, they start seeing it in themselves and it works. That’s really important.
Nichol: And then I, I would say the other piece that that’s so important about many of our neuro-diverse clients come in and transitions are hard, right? Going to school Monday morning is hard, but changes to routine are hard. So, so oftentimes these clients might struggle more initially with accepting being here, but then because they like routine and structure and, and programs like ours are very structured and routine, they get really good at it. And you know, within a couple of weeks, they have the system dialed off like when we get up, but when this happens and what we’re supposed to do, and they can really help guide other students. And, and some of the neuro-typical students really start to appreciate how skilled these clients may be at helping them navigate our system. And because there’s that structured routine to the, to the environment it’s really helpful when you struggle socially to have a prescribed time where you give positive and constructive feedback to your peers or where you weigh-in and give them feedback on how they’re doing with their week, or, you know, some of the structured nature of a therapeutic program on a daily basis gives these kids opportunities to practice social skills in a more prescribed way that makes it feel safer to, to take some time.
Jason: Right. So what are, what are some of the challenges that your neuro-diverse clients have that are the most common patterns that you see? What are they coming from? I think we, we always know that there’s some technology obsession or addiction and maybe some parties. What do you see?
Nichol: Well, certainly technology addiction. I also, you know, we see a lot of clients, particularly female clients who have never been diagnosed, people have kind of no idea what’s going on for them. And so I think that one of the things we see a lot is maybe coming to our program is the first time that we’re really to help a family and child understand what’s going on in a way that can help them better understand themselves.
Jason: You mean in regards to them?
Nichol: Yeah. Like maybe understanding that they might be on the Autism Spectrum, or they might have a Non-Verbal Learning Disorder or something that just, no one’s ever said to them. A lot of times, all they’ve heard is you’re so smart. Why can’t you just do better in school? You know? And maybe it’s because they’re verbally gifted, but they really struggle. I, when it comes to writing assignments and reading and executive functioning and all those other things, so people are so smart, you’re just lazy. And really helping them understand that some of that might be actually how they learn
Jason: Right. When their IQ is over 120, they can’t do a simple task or follow-through, or they could do it last week, but they can’t do it this week. People didn’t, we just don’t comprehend generally what neuro-diverse means and what some of the symptoms and issues are with it.
Nichol: Yeah. And then I think you, you pile on sometimes years of shame and guilt and internalize this thing that I’m lazy and people think I just need to try harder, but I don’t know how why wouldn’t I retreat to video games or something where I can find more immediate success.
Jason: Absolutely. There’s another podcast that we’re doing coming up on the layers and levels of dysfunction issue problems. And the primary one being that their brain is different, which in and of itself has some issues, but isn’t all that bad. But then that trauma abuses deprivations that come from being a square peg in a round world, and then the self-loathing comes and then that whole cycle, and we have to overcome all three of those. And that happens between the ages of 15 and 24. And that’s a lot of crap to deal with. Yeah.
Nichol: Well said I would say the other pattern that we’ve seen a lot of is you know, one of my biggest fears when it happens and it happens a lot is that our neuro-diverse clients, somewhere along the way, find marijuana. And we have seen a real connection between those two. And I think on the one hand, it makes sense, right? Like here is a client who struggles to interact socially with others and maybe suffers from social anxiety. And boy, if you get with a group of people who are smoking marijuana, all of a sudden everyone’s social skills are a little bit, you know, less sharp, right? There’s an ability to connect and all of a sudden you have this prescribed ritual and thing that you can talk about and you can do, and you can all focus around, you know when you’re going to smoke and where are you going to smoke and how you’re going to get it and what kind of all this stuff, right. There’s this way to have this identity that can really work for some neuro-diverse clients in terms of, it feels like it fixes all of their problems. Yeah.
Jason: And it gets blurry
Nichol: Yeah. At least temporarily. Right. And I think a lot of you know, I’ve seen a number of clients who get really entrenched in that belief, in that nothing works like that, and nothing’s going to help them except marijuana, even though it may be causing a lot of problems for them, whether legally, or with their family or with school or something. And I think it’s, it, it can be challenging to kind of undo and help them find other things that work as well. Once they get really hooked on marijuana.
Debbie: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really important. And understanding that for parents to be aware of that and why it’s appealing, they’re not a bad kid or being, it’s not rebellious either. It’s more just like wanting to fit somewhere and they’re trying to meet their needs met.
Nichol: I mean, if you can’t, for example, if you’re kind of this awkward quirky kid and all of a sudden you’re the, your particular area of interest becomes marijuana and you know, everything about it and how to get it and all this stuff, you’re going to have some friends, right. It may not be the right friends or the right group, but that can be really validating. And so it does take some work to help them understand the challenges that make sense.
Jason: One of the patterns and trends that we’re seeing is we’re getting more and more diagnoses on the spectrum or neurodiverse, older and older. Why do you think that is what’s going on?
Nichol: You mean they’re getting diagnosed for the first time older and over. I think that one thing is that I remember when it was like everyone was getting diagnosed with PDD NOS and all these things, right. Like Pervasive Development Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified or you know, I think that since kind of Asperger’s and all of these things have started to fall under the Autism Spectrum, there does like, part of it is that there seems to be more of an awareness of, you know, these neuro-diverse traits and what they might be. And, and, you know, it seems like that that spectrum, if you will, has gotten a little bit broader over time, a bigger umbrella, for sure. Yeah. In terms of what clinicians are willing to identify or talk about. That seems to be a real piece of it. And I don’t know. I mean, I, I guess I wonder again, I think we see a lot of girls get diagnosed later in life. I think sometimes that gets missed more often in female clients for some reason. And then what’s up, you’re a little better
Debbie: They are better at masking.
Nichol: I think, I think generally speaking, female clients often have more sophisticated social skills, even if they have some deficits.
Jason: For parents who are wondering, when would you say it’s, it’s ready and it’s time to do a wilderness intensive because it’s pretty restrictive, it’s expensive. It’s a big commitment. When would you say, yeah, you’re your child or you aren’t ready for wilderness, or you don’t necessarily need wilderness. How do you determine who would benefit?
Nichol: That’s a great question. I think that you know, usually when families come to us, it’s when they’re really struggling to function on a daily basis. Right. So we work with a lot of school refusal or you know, maybe there’s just been a pattern of kind of heading in the wrong direction. In terms of things getting worse, not better. And things like, you know, intensive outpatient therapy or weekly sessions or bi-weekly sessions with a therapist just are not working as students not engaging. You know, that’s often a time to start thinking about it as expensive as wilderness programs are. And we do have some challenges with, with getting insurance reimbursement you know, we are far less expensive than an inpatient hospital setting. And you know, I would argue that we’re quite a bit more effective.
So I think that there’s also a spectrum in terms of wilderness programs and sort of how far down the rabbit hole you might be before you engage in, in those services. For example, we don’t take clients that are involuntarily transported. We want students to come to us at least willing to get in the car and come with their parents and do this experience. And I think that in my eyes, that’s a really important part of this process is, is a family being able to actually get their child here and work with them. And, and that’s something we haven’t talked about yet is just that the family component of all of this you know, students and kids, they don’t exist in a vacuum, right. They exist within a family system. And so we really try to look at this system as our client.
And in addition to making the child go through six levels and be here in our program we have a whole curriculum for our parents and we have a full-time parent coach who is bringing them through six levels of their own. So at school we have a curriculum where we’re giving them homework assignments and doing weekly sessions with them. We also do weekly family sessions with the child and their parents the whole time that they’re here. So we’re a little unusual for a wilderness program that a child will be talking to their parents the second week they are here. And then when it’s not the era of COVID by week three or four, we are asking families to come here, take their child overnight and go to a hotel and spend the night together and then come back and do an in-person family session. We’ll talk about that. We believe strongly that if you can’t change the family system a little bit, then if you go home things, probably aren’t going to be that different. Like it takes more than just changing. And particularly with neuro-diverse clients, I think a lot of what we end up doing is, is education for parents and helping them really understand what’s going on for their child and developing some empathy, but also some strategies that help them understand what works for them.
Jason: I think when parents are in crises, the natural state is to think, okay, who’s the problem? Well, you know, my, my child has a disability or a diagnosis of a pretty severe difference. It can’t be their fault. It’s gotta be our fault, or, and then who’s the identified client. Who’s the problem? And once we can get past there’s, nobody’s the problem. It’s not that you’re the fault or the cause, but you can be the solution. You’re the only one who can decide to love yourself, or you’re the only one who can change the environment that your child goes back to. So it’s really a partnership and we got to get past the shame and the blaming, the self-loathing emotionally process through that yet you’re, you’ve been in crises and it sucks, and we’re going to be okay, that’s a big shift to get them out of crises and stuck to get them moving forward is to no longer find who’s the cause or the blame to the problem.
Nichol: That’s very well said. And I think for so many of our parents, particularly with neuro-diverse children is, is, you know, they, they’ve often done a lot of rescue in or trying to help them get through it. You know, they have some awareness that maybe their child doesn’t do as well socially, or has some struggles. And, and they’ve done a lot to sort of smooth the path for them or help them sometimes along the way, a lot of our work is, is helping families understand, again, this idea of safe struggle and being able to not let their own anxiety lead to them, stepping in and trying to fix things. You know, many of these clients will come to us that maybe 17, 18, 19, and, you know, one of their parents is still kind of making their lunch and laying out their clothes and doing all of these things for them that, you know, maybe were totally appropriate when they were a lot younger, but that pattern is persistent because they struggle and they’re trying to help them. And you know, how do we come up with a system and help them develop a way to sort of let their child have a safe struggle? That’s more age-appropriate to figure out how to pick my clothes or how to make my lunch.
Jason: I love that the parents that we work with as they had to do what they had to do to get their kid through high school. And actually some of them, if they don’t do their laundry and laid out the kid’s going to be late for school, they’re going to miss the bus. It just sets up a domino effect. So, you know, parents who really are helicopter parenting, I don’t blame them at all because they’re, they are the executive functioning for their child. And it’s hard, but then there comes a place where the parents if they’re a part of the equation, their child can’t progress anymore, and there does need to be a split in autonomy.
Nichol: I think a lot of that with parents is helping them recognize their own, like emotional buy-in to that, right? Like I think it is often their anxiety or even their need to sort of be needed. Right. I mean, this pattern gets developed and that, I think it’s not, you know, some of them have a lot of shame and guilt about what they’re doing and that’s not as healthy as just figuring out how do we, how do we move past this? I think every parent wants their child neuro-diverse or not to be able to function as an adult. So how do we help them take the steps to start moving?
Debbie: Yes. So I would love to hear if you have any examples of a client that, that was struggling, you know, a neurodiverse client that was struggling, that made progress, that surprised you, or if you, if there have been things that have been really effective, that surprised you, that made a difference. Yeah.
Nichol: I think that there are so many over the years. I would say that probably the most important thing is helping them really find the adults that they connect with. Right. Like that, that charismatic mentor, whoever that is for them, whether that’s their therapist, me, whether that’s a guide staff. It seems like these clients more than others really need that safe adult touchstone that they can come to and who they really trust to give them feedback and navigate that process. I told an example of this morning in a staff training where I remember a client of mine that was on the spectrum and in his first expedition, I went out with him and his, his particular area of interest was building rockets. Right. And I hiked with him and learned about everything I possibly could about rockets.
I don’t care about rockets. Right. But it was kind of cool. And I was interested and, you know, I think the rule is a therapist. Sometimes it’s, “Hey, this is what you want to talk about.” Let’s talk about it. Right. Then it came to, you know, fast forward a number of days and he didn’t move up in our level system. And he had kind of a tough first family session. And he was really dysregulated. And I mean, he picked up a rock and was threatening staff with a rock, which is pretty unusual for our clients to have that happen here. And all the staff were trying to work with him and to get them to put the rock down talk. And I was able to just walk up as this therapist and say, “Hey, do you want to go to my office and talk?”
And he was like, “yes.” And he started crying and he dropped the rock and we went to my office and we’re able to process. And, you know, the, some of the staff later were like, I would have talked, you know, and, and my response to them was you didn’t spend six hours learning about rockets. I think taking that time to get interested. I mean, you know, I know all kinds of stuff about level 86 of World of Warcraft. You know, I think that piece is important and, and this kid did this day. He, I think he’s almost 30 years old now, every once in a while we still get on a Zoom and he shows me his latest rocket. And I mean, he’s like professionally building rockets. So I think being able to engage with whatever his area of interest for them, it’s a really important piece.
I think where that gets tricky is going back to marijuana use. I have had some clients who, you know, their particular kind of area of interest really becomes marijuana. And I think that’s a trickier one. But where I’ve really seen some growth with that is when they can sort of become receptive to that. Psycho-Education about “what is Autism” let’s say. And, and, oh, you know, this really is my particular area of interest. And maybe I’m not that rational in assessing my own marijuana use and sort of allowing them to gain that, understanding that like, Oh, maybe I should listen to some other folks here because I’m not in a place to make a good decision.
Jason: So Nichol, what is something that you are really passionate about in what you do every day? What are you passionate about? We’d love to hear about what makes you excited about getting up in the morning?
Nichol: Yeah, well, there’s a lot of things. But I think in terms of what we do here, I would say, you know, one of the things that are so powerful about an experience like this is that our program, like this, is we get to see a lot of growth happening in a shorter amount of time. You know, I spent some time as an outpatient therapist and yeah, you saw clients grow, but it was very slow and gradual and a lot of setbacks. It is just awesome to be in a setting where, you know, I can observe my clients in a group, part of a community. I can observe them in school and I can see them out in the wilderness. I know that they’re taking their medication as prescribed. I know they’re not using substances. Like there’s just a, it’s such a rich environment to really do the assessment and figure out what’s going on for a client, but also really help them make some changes and some growth in, in a quicker amount of time. I often say if we didn’t have a wilderness portion, I think we’d have a six or eight-month minimum instead of an eight-week.
Jason: I love watching the lights go on.
Nichol: That’s the piece that’s so fun. And so often, you know, I think my other favorite is when they give my words back to me as their own epiphany or idea, maybe we had this, you know, I’ve kind of threw out an idea, like, what do you think of this? And they’re like, “Oh, that’s stupid.” Right. And then a week later they’re like, “Oh, you know, I realized something”. And you know, to me, that’s when we’ve done our best work, when we’ve helped a client kind of come to a realization, but they feel like they got there on their own.
Jason: Yes. And the parents, you tell them about it on the, your next parent call. And they’re like, I’ve been telling them that for a year. They didn’t listen to me.
Nichol Right. There’s the power of not being the “Dad” or pretty effective.
Jason: Well, what else haven’t we addressed or talked about that you’d like to bring up or that you’d like to share?
Nichol: I guess the other thing is we have a continuum of care here that in addition to our Summit Achievement program, we also have a program called Summit Traverse. And I share it because it was something we created about 10 or 12 years ago because we saw a lot of clients finishing wilderness programs and needing a little bit more time. Right. They weren’t quite ready to go home. They needed to practice these skills a little bit more like the metaphor I often give is, is students finish wilderness and they are really determined to make some changes. And maybe they’re even starting to make them kind of like someone who’s decided for New Year’s resolution that they’re going to join the gym, right. To give a metaphor. And then, you know, that’s a different skill set than going to the gym three days a week, early in the morning in April.
Right. You know, like continuing to do that. And so I think a lot of our clients struggle when they leave wilderness with how do I maintain this change over time? Right. Like the maintenance stage of change is very different than that, like initial determination and an action phase (Stages of Change model). And so, you know, at least 10 or 12 years ago, all of the therapeutic boarding schools and programs that existed were really long, right. They were 12 or 18-month commitments. And we had a lot of clients who just needed a little more time. So we created our Summit Traverse program, which is essentially a short-term therapeutic boarding school. It’s an additional two, three, four months where students can stay with us, go to school five days a week do kind of more normative activities on the weekend, and practice going home for up to a week at a time.
It has just been really helpful, particularly for some of our neuro-diverse clients who again, sometimes struggle to extrapolate one experience to another, right. And a lesson learned here. It may not be the same as, as this experience that’s slightly different. And so you have that ability to practice things to, you know, you can talk a lot and plan for going home and not, you know, maybe locking yourself in your room and playing video all day, but it’s different when you actually go home for a week and you’re bored. And that video game console is right upstairs. You know, how does that go? And so the opportunity to practice some of that and then come back to us.
Debbie: I think that transition is so huge that you’re describing with your travel. Summit Traverse right?
Nichol: Yes, Summit Traverse. Our outcomes have shown that kids that do Summit Traverse are doing better at discharge better at six months and better at a year and after than kids who just do Summit Achievement.
Debbie: So how can people find you and learn more about the program you’re at? And certainly, we have a website
Nichol: Which is Summit Achievement.com. We have a YouTube channel that has a lot of videos of, of staff and clients and people talking about what we do. People are welcome to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You know, we’re always happy to talk about what we do and if this would be a good fit for your child or not. And, and our commitment is that if you know, if we don’t feel like someone’s a good fit, we’re at least going to point you in a direction, whether that’s to an educational consultant or a couple of websites, give you another step to find the place that can help.
Jason: One of the things that I respect about you is you’re in this for the result and the clients that you serve. And there’s a sense of integrity that if you stick to the students that, you know, are a good profile fit for you, they do well, you do well. And it’s, it’s ethical and professional, and it’s in its integrity to refer them to somewhere else. And I, I think anyone that called you or us, they would get that same approach, but I think most of the people in our profession are that way. And so it’s, yeah, it says a lot about you, you know, it’s a, it’s a
Nichol: It is a passion for us. And I think that you know, I didn’t set out into this field to own a program that wasn’t my goal, but I think I saw a trend in this field of a lot of programs being bought by venture capital firms or, or, you know, larger corporations. And while there are certainly benefits to that, my fear has always been that at some point, you know, maybe there’s a tension that exists between sort of profit and shareholder profit and, and quality treatment. And I think I knew myself well enough to know that that wasn’t the right word for me. So that’s why I guess three or four years ago now, you know, I and another long-standing employee and one of the original founders bought Summit Achievement, right. And actually put in our by-laws that to be an owner, you have to be full-time.
Jason: That’s great. I agree the best, the best way to keep a business open is to provide a really good product. And if your profit-focused, the product goes away and then the profit goes away too. So the best way we can serve a lot of people is to stay in business and give a really good product. So definitely yes. Well, thank you so much for coming on. So informative. And I think a lot of parents have not even didn’t even know that this kind of program exists and the components of what make it so effective.
Jason and Debbie: Thank you for being on the podcast. And we’ll talk to you soon.
Nichol: Thank you both. Thanks again. I’m honored to be honest, and that was fun.