Students and teachers at The FOCUS Center for Autism in Canton. Photo submitted.
Students and teachers at The FOCUS Center for Autism in Canton. Photo submitted.

The FOCUS Center for Autism is located in Canton and, through its programs and services, is committed to helping children and young adults with autism spectrum disorder achieve their full potential.
The nonprofit organization was founded in 2000 and provides clinical, educational, residential, and support services to children and their families. Along with its programs, the organization operates The Fresh Start School, a state-approved special education program for students 10 to 21 years old.

In this interview, The Winsted Phoenix talks with Maeghen Harris, the director of educational services for the Fresh Start School, and Lauren Gardner, public relations coordinator for the organization

Winsted Phoenix: What is your position at FOCUS, and how long have you been there?

Lauren Gardner: My current position at FOCUS Center for Autism is public relations and marketing coordinator. 2021 will mark my 12th year with FOCUS. In high school, I began to volunteer at FOCUS and fell in love with the mission to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder achieve their full potential. FOCUS was opened in 2000 as a nonprofit agency and has evolved into a continuum of care for children, adolescents, and adults with autism as well as their families. Being with the agency for so long, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the growth and evolution of FOCUS.

Maeghen Harris: I started at FOCUS in 2010 as a social work intern when I studied at the University of Connecticut. I was hired as a clinician in 2012 after receiving my master’s degree in social work. It was the beginning of the FOCUS summer program and it was an absolute blast to be a clinician during that time. During the summer, the students were more relaxed and could concentrate on building friendships and personal growth. Next, I was promoted to assistant to the two directors and then became Director of Autism Services. After our co-founder Fred Evans and our Educational Director at the time, Carol Doiron, achieved our extended day treatment program approved as a Connecticut state-approved special education program known as the Fresh Start School, I was asked to take the position of educational director after Carol retired. I continued my education to get the credentials needed to take the position. I’ve learned so much being a clinician in the programs and continue to enjoy working directly with the teachers and students to learn how to best support academic, social, and emotional growth.

What do you enjoy about your position?

LG: There are many things I enjoy about working for FOCUS. I have the privilege of working with incredible, skilled people who are committed to creating lasting positive change in the lives of all who walk through our doors. As public relations coordinator, I also enjoy creating meaningful, uplifting relationships between our agency and surrounding community members and businesses.

MH: I enjoy the chance to make a difference in someone’s life. At FOCUS we have the unique ability to be flexible and meet each student’s individual needs. We create positive relationships with our students based on safety and trust. These relationships are the basis of what makes our work both rewarding and effective.

What makes FOCUS unique and what services do you offer?

LG: FOCUS currently offers state-approved private special education school, Fresh Start School, Adult Support Services, Autism Services, FOCUS Autism Spectrum Unplugged Panels, consultations, and two supportive housing programs.

MH: Fresh Start School takes a unique clinical approach with our students with autism spectrum disorder and related disorders. We specialize in treating anxiety and meeting our students where they are at. We take an individualized approach, and instead of viewing behaviors as something to extinguish, we view behaviors as a form of communication and try to learn what those behaviors are telling us. All of our staff are trained in de-escalation techniques (Therapeutic Crisis Intervention) and many of our staff hold advanced degrees in special education, nursing, and/or licensed as social workers or psychologists. At Fresh Start, we currently have 17 students and offer rolling admission. For more information about enrollment at Fresh Start School, those interested can contact Maeghen or Amanda Pasler at 860-693-8809.

LG: When I think about what makes FOCUS unique, I often think about what people say when they first walk through our doors or meet our team, no matter their walk of life, they almost always comment about how they feel so welcomed, safe, and how the passion they feel from our staff is nearly tangible! FOCUS is truly amazing because of the love and the caring that is given throughout all of our programs.

What does a typical day look like for a student there – what do they enjoy about it?

MH: A typical day for a student is structured, with built-in flexibility. There are lots of built-in sensory breaks, social opportunities, and clinical time. Students may also attend occupational therapy and speech therapy in their day.

Many students have commented that what they love most about our approach is that we accept them for who they are and encourage them to build on their strengths rather than focus on their deficits.

How has FOCUS been affected by COVID-19?

MH: Fresh Start School has become adept at switching between remote and in-person learning. The students increased their independence through the initial challenges of going remote. Our students are so tech-savvy, that many have excelled. In the beginning, when everyone was home, we were thrilled to see engagement in the virtual classroom and we started up virtual groups like Dungeon and Dragons for social opportunities. Our success in the school can be attributed to constant communication between clinicians and parents. Our open communication style helped support families while they were at home. Our team also increased Parent Support Group opportunities, and other opportunities to connect.

LG: Our students and residents have continued to receive services throughout the pandemic. We have a wonderful group of volunteers called The Friends of FOCUS that have provided for our residents during this time. They cooked meals, delivered PPE, and provided materials to help support our residents and staff to get through the difficult times of being at home. Our Adult Support Services began providing virtual daily check-ins. Many of the participants talked about loneliness and lack of activities, so we added three daytime virtual sessions for games, movies, and fitness classes.

What are some goals for the future at FOCUS?

LG: We are increasing services for adults and their families. There is an extreme lack of support and funding for this group affected by autism and we are currently growing Adult Support Services programs to meet the needs of the adults and their families.

MH: The Fresh Start School is looking to build a new school building. We currently have three buildings on our school campus, two educational buildings, and one for administrative staff, and we are looking to build a space that can combine all three. While we make it work now, it is so important for us and our mission to be under one roof.

How can people help support your mission?

MH: Since 2000, the success of FOCUS is due to the support and contributions made by donors and our surrounding community. As nonprofit, financial contributions are always welcome – checks can be made out FOCUS Center for Autism and mailed to PO Box 452 Canton, CT 06019. Our website has a list of many ways to support FOCUS including links to donate, shop our Amazon Wishlist, or become a Friend of FOCUS. Our Adult Support Services program is also running a can and bottle drive, to donate your cans and bottles you can call Sharon at 860-693-9128. We appreciate all forms of support, it helps make our dreams of providing a continuum of care to the autism community a reality.

Winsted resident Erica Taylor wrote for several years for The Winsted Journal and studied Journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.