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Center for Supported Learning helping young adults with developmental disabilities

December 26, 2018

HUNTINGTON — Sara Loftus is the mother of an 18-year-old with mitochondrial disease.

“He has developmental delays, among other things, so college is not an option for him,” Loftus said.

Loftus began to wonder about the future for her son.

“He is not going to be able to work independently. He is not going to college, so where is he going? What can I do to make a brighter future for him?” she said.

That was the impetus for her to help launch the Center for Supported Learning (CSL) in Huntington in 2016.

“A group of us that worked with young adults with developmental disabilities started this nonprofit with the hope of filling a needed space in our community for providing activities or connections for youth after they turn 21 years old and leave the public school system,” Loftus said.

Loftus said the Center for Supported Learning, an incubator client in the Unlimited Future Inc. building at 1650 8th Ave., offers lifelong learning opportunities for people with neurodiversity through community engagement in the arts, digital literacy, sports, earth sciences and urban gardening experiences in an inclusive supported environment.

“I am a human geographer,” Loftus said. “I am working on my Ph.D. in the Department of Geography at West Virginia University, so I started to think about what’s happening and all the social systems that are around and how they can be reconfigured and challenged the way services are delivered to be more sustainable and meaningful for inclusive interaction in the community. If we structure this around interest, it will be sustainable.”

CSL does this by developing partnerships and collaborations with arts and educational programs, community groups and organizations of various sizes, from small nonprofits to state and local universities, to foster sustainable, inclusive life-learning activities for youth and young adults with neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled with dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, Tourette syndrome and others.

Loftus seeks to promote academic inquiry into neurodiversity as a concept and social movement.

“Our mission is providing meaningful, person-centered supported lifelong learning activities for people with developmental disabilities and autism spectrum disorders,” she said.

Loftus says instead of telling these young adults with developmental disabilities what they should do, they are asking them what do they want to do.

“If you are doing something you like to do, then you are more willing to do it because you like it,” she explained. “So we started working on this idea that there were three things missing in this community — choice, voicing and responsibility. Now that we are teaching them to make choices, we need to also teach them how to express those choices and teach them the responsibility that comes with those choices.”

Loftus said many youth with developmental disabilities have been socialized to not make choices as they get older.

“By the time they are 20 years old, they haven’t had the same exposure to independent choice making that their peer might have, so that was something we wanted to address,” she said. “Our programming is based around what these kids and young adults want to do.”

CSL has both a programmatic and research focus, according to Loftus.

“Programmatically, we make connections between existing community resources and our participants* interests, whether it be music, painting, pottery, dance, farming, and nutrition and cooking,” she explained. “By leveraging existing support services provided to our participants through various community-based social support programs, participants have the scaffolding necessary to allow them to meaningfully participate in existing community activities.”

CSL has a bunch of ongoing projects that build a sustainable community for people with developmental disabilities.

“We are not doing employment, although some of the things we do can lead to employment in other places,” Loftus explained. “What we do is trying to develop communications with existing community organizations based on interest.”

One example is the Lettuce Grow Project with Marshall University’s Sustainability Department. Loftus says this partnership project provides a meaningful urban gardening experience.

“They teach urban gardening techniques in a person-centered supported learning environment,” Loftus said. “Their highly structured training program teaches participants urban gardening techniques, including skills such as planting, harvesting, crop management and sales in the local food network.

The program is supported through strong partnerships with Marshall University and the Autism Training Center, as well as relationships with Unlimited Futures Inc. and The Wild Ramp in Huntington.

“On our urban farms we start out with a list of what we need to do, but we allow them to pick what they want to do,” Loftus said. “Sometimes it’s watering and sometimes they just want to watch others, and we build our connections through this collective interest.”

Another project is a ceramics class through the Huntington Museum of Art.

“We have enough people that wanted pottery as something to do,” she said. “In 2019 we will partner with a professional photographer because we have several participants in our program that want to learn about photography.”

Loftus said there is another group of participants that love computer games.

“That’s where our virtual reality project came from,” she said.

CSL helped to develop a team of high schools students who won the People’s Choice Award at the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) Makes Festival in early October. The team from Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School in South Point, Ohio, won the People’s Choice Award for VR Deep Sea Dive.

“This team of freshman and sophomore high school students worked all year on developing a virtual reality deep-sea dive experience,” Loftus said. “This was their debut showing of their game to the public.”

Loftus said the project is part of CSL’s Digital Laboratory Project, where they work with collaborative partners to help youth and young adults become not only digital consumers but also digital producers.

“We collaborated with Families Leading Change and the Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School and L&B Geographic Solutions LLC on this virtual reality project,” she said.

Loftus said it’s about building positives based on interest and choice and then making connections with people who do it.

“We look at what can be done creatively that might build entrepreneurial skills,” Loftus said. “Our kids can be starving artists, too. They can be poorly paid painters just like every neurotypical person that is trying to be an artist. We are taking their interests to come up with projects, and we view this as strength instead of looking at their developmental delays and telling them they can’t do something.”

In order to expand the opportunities for people with neurodiversity to get more involved in community activities, the CSL needs help.

“We need volunteers and we need donations to support our programs,” Loftus said. “We are constantly fighting against physical isolation and social isolation, so we are always looking for volunteers in the community to help us, organizations and businesses to have collaborations with us, and donations to support our programs. Donations are tax deductible.”

For information about volunteering, donating or collaborating with the CSL, visit online at ctrsupportedlearning.org.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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