by Allen Martin and Jennifer Mistrot
SAN RAFAEL (KPIX 5) — On a recent outing to Cadence Farm in Sonoma, Janet Lawson and Dan Swearingen watched students as they learned basic horse training skills, everything from understanding the proper way to give horses a treat, to how to care for and clean-up after the animals.
Lawson and Swearingen founded Autistry Studios 12 years ago after the husband-and-wife team saw their own son, who also has autism, struggle with opportunities after high school.
“We looked for what would come next, what was his career?” recalled Lawson. “You know, We’re adults far longer than we are children, and it’s a long ways from graduating to high school to the end of your life. That’s a lot of years. And we were going, what is he going to do?”
So Lawson, a licensed therapist, and Swearingen, a now retired software programming manager, decided to serve their son and others with autism full-time. Autistry Studios offers project-based therapy programs such as makers workshops and web design, homework help, life skills and even daily meals.
Low student-to-instructor ratios give every aspect of the program a personal feel. Students choose the projects themselves. The overall goal for each student is to address issues such as anxiety, emotional regulation and social communication.
“It gives some kind of structure to the creativity,” explained Steven Waite. “Some like specific projects to put it into.”
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For Swearingen, project planning with his students is key.
“It’s the planning and the problem-solving and dealing with the stress that they encounter as they do this, and that’s what’s really important,” said Swearingen. “That’s something that, that most individuals on the autism spectrum need to learn.”
And seeing their students, along with their son succeed, is what keeps Lawson and Swearingen going.
“When you see one of your students who you’ve worked with for a while, make a change – and realize how well they’re doing – there’s no price on that,” said Lawson. “There’s no way to evaluate that. It makes me happy.”