Q: What’s so original about the Hidden Wings model? It doesn’t sound like what you’re doing is different from what I want for my own son/daughter, who doesn’t have autism. You want to bring out the true passion or gift of the child, you want them to be healthy with lots of exercise, you’d like them to have someone guide them into their career of choice, and you want them to be happy and have a relatively independent life.

A:   Right you are! We don’t claim to be original. In fact, parents of autistic youth have basically the same goals as any parents do. My wife Julia and I [Jim] are parents of four boys; two of them are on the autistic spectrum. We want the same for all of them. Not surprisingly, the Hidden Wings school was designed almost entirely by parents of autistic youth.

I would say that the only difference is that youth with learning differences basically get dropped from society after they leave high school. There are no colleges designed for their unique needs, no career paths that are well mapped out for them. Imagine if your high schooler faced a world in which there was a presumption that their lives and intellects basically flat-lined by age 22.

By contrast, our school encourages growth by reflecting the unique learning styles of autistic youth (primarily visual and kinesthetic learning). And the environment is considered in all facets:  low lighting, low noise, the surrounding of nature and animals. In addition, we strive to ensure access to professionals and the society into which these young adults will enter.

Q: Who may attend classes with Hidden Wings? How old are your students?

A: Our classes are open to young people aged 12-24. We welcome visual thinkers, individuals with learning differences and autism.

Q:  When you speak about your students, you are talking about individuals who are high-functioning with Aspergers Syndrome and savants, right?

A:  Not necessarily. We have found that young people on all parts of the spectrum and other kids with learning differences often fall through the cracks. We know that beyond their challenges, each of these kids has gifts waiting to be discovered. It is our desire to discover these gifts with them and watch as their wings unfold so they can share them with the world around them and beyond.

Our current group of students includes a broad spectrum of “visual thinkers,” individuals with unique learning differences. Our students include a savant painter, as well as people who have severe difficulties with language, socialization, and cognitive impairment. Aspergers syndrome is widely represented in our student body as well.

History is replete with individuals who seemed ‘low functioning,’ yet led lives of tremendous significance. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian in the first thousand years of Christianity, was called a “dumb ox”. Winston Churchill was bounced out of school. Abraham Lincoln failed in just about everything he tried until he became President. Franklin Roosevelt was a paraplegic at a time when such a disability was considered a complete career-changer. Babe Ruth was chubby and could not run.

The world is quick to judge. In our first two years, we have not only found that each of our students have special gifts, but that each of them has a highly specialized gift that is truly outstanding.

Q: How can you sustain a school that charges no tuition, seeks no government funding, and teaches many classes with a teacher-to-student class ratio of 3 to 1?

A:  We can’t. We are very blessed to have benefactors who wanted to help start an incubator, a model that could be replicated elsewhere. However, we cannot rely on these benefactors forever. As both our fixed and variable costs grow, we will have to charge tuition. But our intention is always that the tuition will be within the grasp of people of any economic situation.

You may ask, Don’t people equate ‘free’ with ‘not worthwhile’? Not always. Many autistic parents have paid a great deal of money for hypothetical cures or effective treatments that were neither cures nor effective treatments. We want to build out our model and make sure that it works. We want to under-promise and over-deliver. We want to make sure that when we do charge tuition, we do so for an educational experience that will be life-changing and career-enhancing.

Q: My son just graduated from high school. He wants to get a job, have some independence, and money in his pocket. Your curriculum seems like a cross between a liberal arts education along with a lot of sporting activities! Why should he attend?

A:  Autistic youth just out of high school often stay home all day, with no place to go. And the more individuals stay home, without anything to do, the more unmotivated they will become.

We are parents who have seen the special talents that our sons and daughters with autism and learning differences possess. Given their communication limitations, we think that it will take more time for that talent to unfold. As with most 17 or 18-year-olds, they are just beginning to “come into their own.”

Q: At the end of these four years with Hidden Wings, what will my son or daughter have that they don’t have already?

A:  We believe that our students will have a passion that they can pursue. Over the course of four years, their gifts will have been clarified. Their particular impediments will have been moderated while their strengths will have been developed. They will have a guide, someone who is not a relative, someone who has a similar gifting, someone who is committed to them. They will not only have a loving friend and supporter, but a job-maker. And then, at the end of four years, they will also have a path to a career.

Q:  How are you going to get mentors that have strong commitment? What’s the incentive for them?

A:  This has been our biggest surprise. There is no rational reason for their enthusiasm. Our mentors are not paid. The work is long. The commitment is absolutely required. There is very little immediate payback.

This kind of motivation was illustrated by two famous football players who taught a football camp for middle schoolers. The young athletes at the camp were not stars, and these famous players weren’t trying to make them stars. Instead, they wanted the kids to know:  you can shine no matter what you are made of.

Interestingly, the famous football players forged special friendships with those who were, in many ways, most unlikely to succeed. The boy with autism would catch the ball and run to score for the other team. Yet to this day, one of the two former legends of the NFL keeps in touch with him, the only autistic boy among two hundred middle schoolers at that camp.

Q: So, what’s the secret?

A:  We call it the 5% rule. We know that there is a tiny population of people who just love being friends with individuals with autism. Yet since autistic people are so unloved by so many, the small group (the 5%) has a love that is truly amazing.

Here is the analogy we like to use. People with special needs are the people that Jesus showed a special love for; the ones whom society shunned. Of course, none of our mentors are Jesus. But they seem to follow his example, consciously or unconsciously.

Q: Has anybody in the wider world of autism endorsed you? Have any prominent benefactors found your work worth investing in?

A:  We have had the endorsements of the biggest names in autism:  Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, and Darold Treffert. Our benefactors are some of the most successful businesspeople and philanthropists in the country. We receive near-daily inquires from parents from nearly every state in the union, and countries around the world … and we are just an infant school in the mountains, surrounded by horses, ranchers, and vineyards.

Q:  I’d love to learn more; do you have a list of recommended online resources?

A: Here are three websites from people who have made a huge impact upon Hidden Wings. We highly recommend them to you.
Kevin Hosseini, a Hidden Wings student and savant painter achieving worldwide recognition Dr. Darold Treffert, an inspiration to us all (the foremost expert in savant syndrome and autism; the man who taught Dustin Hoffman to be Rain Man)

Caroline McGraw, a wonderful writer on autism and digging for treasure in people. You can receive a complimentary copy of her book, Your Creed of Care:  How to Dig for Treasure in People (Without Getting Buried Alive) at her site, A Wish Come Clear.

Q: What is your vision of the final “product” of this college uniquely designed for those with autism?

A:  A picture says a thousand words. The diagram of our future college campus is the result of a collaboration of parents, Hidden Wings students, and one of the top artists at Disney. And sure enough, what emerged is a cross between a great college and Disneyland!

The map looks complex, but here’s a simple guide:

First, we have the center, within the ring. This is where the students live. Then there are the learning pods, which are all visual and kinesthetic, much like the “small worlds” of Disneyland. You learn by doing and by seeing. This is the place of learning.

And then, inter-penetrating this outer ring is where the outside world comes in; those who love to learn through sights and sounds, those who see the output of the people who live in the community. This is where the students earn, both in terms of monetary gain and in terms of the respect and acceptance from the outside world.

In short, we envision three concentric circles for our students:

  • The first circle is where they live: a peaceful environment, with gardens and quietude. Our buildings are seamlessly integrated with nature, as this is proven to quiet and enliven young people. Students are taught how to keep an orderly house, understand Shakespeare, talk to policemen, groom horses, paint, draw, develop math, music and memory.
  • The second circle is where they learn: in themed learning centers, with skilled teachers. Our school features trails, ropes courses, and climbing walls. We have a common room for yoga and calisthenics, and we offer activities such as swimming to invigorate and relieve stress. Alternative technology rooms feature computers that operate by symbols and touch, communication enhancement and speech to text software, voice notes, and visual games.
  • The third circle is where they earn turning their gifts into profitable ventures through mentorship. We have a current student being mentored at Disney. This young woman was agoraphobic before she came to us. We showed her work to Disney animators, and a year later, she’s progressing rapidly, doing wonderful work.

Q: Isn’t this all just pie in the sky?

A:  Yes … and isn’t America filled with pie in the sky dreams? When you connect these dreams with doers, the dreams happen. And who would work harder to make this dream a reality than parents of individuals with autism? If you would die for your son or daughter, why wouldn’t you give everything you have toward building a better future for them?

That is why we, and the dozens like us, will never quit. Every “yes” becomes a confidence-builder. From seeds sown, a crop will come.