Opening a World of Possibilities

Firefly Autism gives hope to parents as it helps their children thrive

Cute boy looking through the window

Courtesy iStock

You can’t fault Jesse Ogas for bragging when he says, “Firefly changes lives, not just the life of a child but the lives of the entire family. Whenever we have a little one graduate from our Early Childhood Program and enter regular school, it’s a heartfelt celebration for all of us. It’s one more firefly who can light up and educate others.”

In July, Ogas will celebrate his fourth year as executive director of the Denver-based nonprofit Firefly Autism, which treats kids with autism or autism spectrum disorder, characterized by trouble with social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

Over the past 40 years, there has been a tenfold increase in autism’s prevalence, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that one in every 68 children in the United States has been diagnosed, more boys than girls.

Firefly Autism had its beginnings in December 2002, when Diane Osaki, an occupational therapist specializing in autism intervention, decided to act on her longstanding dream of creating a place where autistic children could learn and have all their needs supported. Six months later, what was then called Aspen Center for Autism opened with 12 children and five therapists, providing the first place where Colorado children with autism could receive academic, physical, speech and occupational therapy, as well as behavioral training under one roof. (Before that, parents and caregivers had to drive their children from one location to another, a process both exhausting and inefficient, Ogas says.)

Today, Firefly has about 60 employees and is headquartered in south Denver in a building purchased by a parent who wanted to thank Osaki for treating his son. There are currently 20 pupils in the School Age Program, 11 in the Early Childhood Program and 128 using home-based services.

Firefly has nearly 500 graduates, with ages ranging from 18 months to 21 years. “The earlier we reach them, the better the success we will have,” says chief clinical officer Ken Winn, adding that nothing pleases him more than to see a child who arrived at Firefly unable to speak leave with the ability to thrive in a public school setting.

“Everything we do at Firefly is tailored to fit the needs of a specific child,” Winn says. “With autism, every child is different. Some have more challenges than others, but we do everything we can to help them be the best they can be.”

Firefly has had much success. Those in its Foundations of Learning, for example, are found to learn five times as fast at the end of the program as when they entered it. Curriculum includes fundamental reading, counting, the use of pictures and iPads to communicate and essentials for living. Children are taught using Applied Behavior Analysis, a safe and effective treatment endorsed by the U.S. surgeon general that involves positive reinforcement and reward.

Winn is quick to point out that while researchers have not identified a cause for autism—though genetics and the environment are believed to play a role—it is not caused by bad parenting or a mother’s failure to bond with her child. Nor is it a mental illness.

The Firefly experience, Ogas says, usually starts “with a call from a sobbing parent whose child has just been diagnosed. They’re overwhelmed and feeling lost. It’s our job to calm those fears … to let them know autism is a diagnosis, not the end of the world. Our job is to give them hope—and open a world of possibilities.”

Firefly has succeeded in getting insurance companies and Medicaid to more fully reimburse the cost of care and in training first responders to recognize autism’s symptoms so they can provide proper aid.

Firefly also has worked with Walmart to train its employees on how to help if an autistic child melts down because of sensory overload and how to accommodate an employee with autism.

“There is still a sense of segregation and discrimination,” Winn says. “Inclusion is one of Firefly’s top priorities.” Parents of children with autism “are in their own kind of jail,” he adds. “They’re afraid to go to a movie, or a store like Walmart, because they’re afraid of the public shame they might receive if their child has a meltdown. We at Firefly successfully work with the most difficult cases. We don’t pay our staff what they should get for their level of expertise, but our reward is to have become greatly respected.”

2695 S. Jersey St.
Firefly Autism believes in treating the whole person; in school, at home and in the community. The nonprofit provides a variety of services to meet the dynamic and diverse needs of the autism community, with a focus on transforming the lives of children with autism.

TO DONATE Money given to Firefly Autism qualifies for the Colorado Child Care Contribution Tax Credit and helps fund such Firefly programs as Adventures in Inclusion, which focuses on specialized social interactions designed to “help these children discover the world … and help the world discover them.”

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