We have had a great deal of success with placements at Aspiro (and here) and have a great deal of respect for their clinical team, (especially Gordon Day). This subset program at Aspiro, called Vantage Point, takes quirky, socially awkward young men and does a fantastic job with them. The profile for a young person going to Vantage Point is one who has been bullied by his peers, has not been a super athlete, and struggles often to process social information. These adolescents often have a disconnect between their heads and their bodies and do not have the confidence to try new physical activities. However, at Aspiro Vantage Point, they encounter adults and other youth who “get” them, often for the first time in their lives! What makes this program different besides the people who really do understand these unique individuals? The staff work to “slow down” activities and transitions so that these kids have time to process what is going on. Often kids with a social skill “difference” do not manage transitions well. A transition can be as simple as going from one activity, such as rock climbing, to returning to base camp. By offering many transition opportunities, as students try new physical activities, such as repelling, mountain biking, or back packing, they begin to gain new confidence in their ability to adapt and to learn new physical activities. Many of these young people have minor gross motor delays, and they have been teased and ridiculed by peers in the past. By being surrounded by a supportive staff, they are able to overcome fears and try new things! Learning to overcome fear and anxiety in the wilderness often translates into a better outlook and better resilience once they return to a more traditional setting!
I know this is a bit of a long read, but it’s well worth it. This was recently written by Jamie Ahern, MSW, CSW, who was once a therapeutic field guide for Vantage Point, and is now a therapist here at Aspiro. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
This time of year, I have a tendency to review the last twelve months of my life and consider all that’s happened in my world.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Vantage Point program at Aspiro, and I’m amazed with where we’re at right now and what amazing clinicians we’ve got on board. As a former Vantage Point field guide-turned therapist, I have seen the workings of this program from the angle of “brush your teeth, pack your bags, walk the miles, and change your socks” to individual therapy sessions and phone calls with loving, albeit anxious parents.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Vantage Point program, let me fill you in. First, however, let me give you the typical pitch I’d give another professional. Here goes:
“Vantage Point is a wilderness adventure therapy program designed specifically for adolescents and young adults who struggle with a variety of neurodevelopmental and cognitive issues such as autism spectrum disorders, severe Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, executive functioning deficits, learning differences (ex: Non-Verbal Learning Differences), social relationship management problems, impulse control and even traumatic brain injuries.”
Now, let me tell you what I know to be true about the Vantage Point Program and it’s students.
Vantage Point is for those adolescents and young adults who have been left behind, marginalized, misunderstood, lost, teased and bullied. It’s for those who’ve struggled tremendously in school, with their family and with building relationships with others. They often want so badly to be understood, to have friends, to be less anxious, and to not be confused and overwhelmed in social situations.
When I think of a Vantage Point student, I think of a 15-year old boy named Cameron I worked with when I was a field guide. During an initial therapy session with Jamie Kaczmarek and myself, Cameron broke down, cried and stated, “I just want to be normal. I just want to have friends.”
At Vantage Point, this young man experienced, for the first time in his life, being accepted into a peer group and forming real friendships. He was no longer picked on, bullied or just “tolerated.” He was understood. His guides were patient with him. He did not get “left behind” when he struggled to keep up with others. In fact, he became loved and respected by his peers for having a positive, cheery outlook and a fascination for reptiles – of which Utah has no shortage. He was made fun of for these things in the past. Before coming to Vantage Point, he was isolating himself in his basement. After becoming accepted into a supporting, nurturing environment, Cameron was challenged to work on developing healthy coping behaviors, He began to talk about his thoughts and emotions. His therapist, Jamie Kaczmarek, worked with Cameron on developing specific social relationship management skills. Cameron, who had significant executive functioning deficits, became more independent and learned to cook his own meals, pack his backpack, keep track of his gear, plan ahead, transition more quickly, and make good decisions. Although Cameron will probably never be what society considers “normal”, he began to feel more normal and accepted during his stay with Vantage Point. When he left, Cameron was more confident in social situations, he was able to more independently care for himself and he had further developed his ability to face challenging situations and overcome. He felt more “normal.”
That is what I know Vantage Point to be.
It is, hands-down, the best place for these kids to make some serious changes in their emotional, behavioral and social well-being. In an effort to become the best treatment program that we can be, we have made some excellent additions to our clinical team in the last year.
Let me tell you about all my amazing co-workers on the
Vantage Point clinical team.
Caitlin Galt, MA, CPCI is a ” quirky young adult” whisperer. I have had the pleasure of sitting in many therapy sessions with Caitlin. She is patient and takes her time with slow processors and those with attention difficulties. I’ve witnessed a two-hour therapy session for a student who needed it – she knows how to build rapport with these kids. Caitlin works with the young adult Vantage Point group, a clinically complex, challenging group of students to be working with. The parents of these students are often struggling as well, and Caitlin is a master at working with complex family dynamics to treat the whole family.
Carl Smoot, Ph.D., is a recent addition to our Vantage Point clinical team. Carl specializes in neuropsychological, academic, vocational, aptitude and personality assessment, including projective assessment tools. He is a great fit for the Vantage Point program as our students are oftentimes very clinically complex. His assessment skills are 15 years in the making and Carl is well known for providing clarity and understanding with these types of often misunderstood and misdiagnosed adolescents and young adults. Carl also has extensive experience in program assessment, and will be working with the Vantage Point program to improve program outcomes for our students and their families.
Jamie Kaczmarek, LCSW, has been with the Vantage Point program for several years now. Jamie connects with Vantage Point students – she “gets” them like no other. I recall being in a therapy session with Jamie when I though all was lost and a Vantage Point student was becoming dysregulated and shutting down. She used humor, distraction and physical activity to strategically re-engage this student and was able to make significant progress with him during this session. In the past, other therapists had given up in frustration; but not Jamie. These are her skills – she connects, she understands, and she is very dynamic. On the phone with Vantage Point parents, she is able to provide parents with clear assessment and understanding of their son or daughter. I’ve heard multiple parents say with relief, “Someone finally understands my kid!”
Shane Whiting, Ph.D., joined the Aspiro team from a therapeutic residential setting where he was the clinical director. This guy is solid. He has been working with Vantage Point profile students for years. He has presented at national conferences on working with adolescents on the autism spectrum. Recently, Shane has been expanding the training for our field staff on understanding and working with Vantage Point students. Shane is skilled at intervention with these students and knows, precisely, what needs to happen for them while they are in Vantage Point. He has a calm, yet commanding presence with Vantage Point students and their parents.
Lastly, Gordon Day, Ph.D., is the clinical director for Aspiro and the Vantage Point program. He has been with us since 2008, and has been instrumental in developing the Vantage Point program to its current status. Like Caitlin, I think Gordon is another “quirky student” whisperer. I have yet to witness someone build rapport with a Vantage Point student faster than Gordon. A student on the spectrum often struggles with significant anxiety, and Gordon has an amazing knack at setting even the most high-strung, difficult student at ease. In line with some standard Vantage Point vernacular, he is the Jedi Master when it comes to working with these complex young men and women.
As a Vantage Point therapist, I have a very strong belief that our clinical team is the best out there. We love our jobs, our company, and the amazing students we work with. As a former Vantage Point field guide, however, I know it’s not just about the therapists! As a field guide, I was involved in extensive training in working with Vantage Point students. After all, it is a very unique population; I’d even say the most interesting and fun-loving population! Our Vantage Point field guides are particularly patient and maintain a focus on keeping Vantage Point students engaged in treatment. After all, these students have become skilled at avoiding engagement in school, with family or with other people in general. I can recall many, many times “on trail” when a Vantage Point student would shut down because they were overwhelmed, anxious and/or emotionally dysregulated. It required copious amounts of patience, empathy and creativity to assist these students in processing their thoughts and emotions to overcome their shut downs and continue through the day. Our field guides are so caring and skilled. I am very proud that I get to work with these amazing people.
One of my favorite theoretical frameworks is Positive Psychology.
Within this framework is a belief in actively expressing gratitude, and how this active pursuit of being grateful can improve our “happiness.” In that spirit, I will close by saying that I am grateful for my past year at Aspiro and the Vantage Point Program. I am grateful for a company and it’s professionals that care about the happiness of our students. Further, I am grateful for the happiness that working with these wonderful, quirky, and fun loving young men and women provides me!