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The Autism Spectrum

Finding a New Path

By Susan Vallee | Photography courtesy of Westonwood Ranch

Lindy Wood’s dream of creating a sustainable future for adults on the autism spectrum has come true with the opening of Westonwood Ranch, a farm-based learning program for young adults on the spectrum.

The determined mom of four was not satisfied with the options she saw for her young son Weston, who is on the autism spectrum, so she set out to create a better future for him and others like him. The school is now accepting applications for full-time fall enrollment in its day program.

Kelly Thompson, the executive director, explained the educational approach: “All students must complete a set of core curriculum classes before we individualize their educational track,” she says. “So, let’s say that a student’s end goal is to work in a restaurant kitchen as a line cook; the program track would be geared more toward our kitchen and developing the skills they need to succeed. We still are teaching those core educational concepts such as math, reading, and writing, but we then practically apply them to a skill that students will need for their future.”

The core curriculum at the ranch includes home life skills, community skills development, health and social skills, prevocational skills, peer interaction, healthy living, and technology courses.

The ranch currently provides a range of services in various programs for more than fifteen individuals with developmental differences. At capacity, the full-time program would be able to educate forty students at a time. The students attend year-round, Monday through Friday, and follow the Walton County School District schedule of 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with one week off in the summer.

Thompson says the team is devoted to providing the highest-quality and best instruction possible to their students. “Our lead educator develops daily lesson plans and runs the instruction. She has her master’s degree in education with a concentration on instruction and curriculum. The student to teacher ratio is three to one. We have three students to one Registered Behavior Technician (RBT). The entire full-time program is overseen by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).”

We hope that if our students’ goal is to be able to obtain a job in whatever field they are interested in, then we can make that happen.

Thanks to the generosity of donors and local foundations, Westonwood Ranch is now able to offer an in-house financial scholarship that families may apply for. The ranch also accepts McKay and Gardiner Scholarship funding and self-pay for the annual tuition.

The ranch has a 3,200-square-foot aquaponic greenhouse, a 5,800-square-foot educational building, an equine center, and a small menagerie of animals, including alpacas, rabbits, pigs, and goats. There is a state-of-the-art sensory room with fiber-optic light tubes, sound-dampening chairs, color-shifting lights, and an integrated music system. There’s also a separate exercise room, an art studio, a kitchen, a technology center, and a life skills classroom.

In addition to the school curriculum, the ranch has begun offering therapeutic equine therapy sessions and an after-school art therapy program. Thompson says she and Wood plan to add a calendar of bonus after-school programs so younger children on the spectrum may participate.

Wood’s original goal of creating a world where her son and many others on the spectrum could potentially learn to live more independently and earn a paycheck is the focus of what they do.

“We hope that if our students’ goal is to be able to obtain a job in whatever field they are interested in, then we can make that happen,” says Thompson. “If that happens to be here on the ranch, either in our greenhouse or in our other micro-business ventures, then we will provide them a comparable paycheck just like any other business.”

She continues, “If they aren’t interested in working on the ranch, we are gathering community business partners who are interested in providing jobs to our students. St. Joe Club and Resorts is one of those businesses. If our students are interested in hospitality, lawn maintenance, the restaurant industry, golf course maintenance, or something along those lines, then we would work to get them placement within St. Joe. We are always looking for other businesses who would be willing to employ some of our students upon graduation.”

— V —

Visit Westonwood.org to learn more.

Susan Vallee has been writing about Northwest Florida for more than twenty years. She’s the author of the popular guidebook Meet Me on 30A, a certified content creator, and a fiction writer. She is also writing a screenplay, working on short stories, and pitching a nonfiction book in between raising a family. You can follow her projects at SusanVallee.com.

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