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Freedom on the farm: Full Spectrum Farms a refuge for people with autism

Full Spectrum Farms. Hannah McLeod photos Full Spectrum Farms. Hannah McLeod photos

On an unusually warm fall afternoon in the mountains, art class is taking place in the outdoor pavilion at Full Spectrum Farms in Cullowhee. Participants are using recycled magazines and newspapers, paint and markers to create mixed-media collages. 

There are two students participating, one is new to Full Spectrum, something that is more and more common these days, and one has been coming to the farm forever. You hear about Nash, the third participant, before he arrives. People speak of him like they would the anticipated arrival of the life of the party. 

“He’s like a giant teddy bear,” said Norman West, president of the Full Spectrum Board and general caretaker of the grounds. “A gentle giant.” 

When Nash arrives, this description doesn’t disappoint. Standing well over six and a half feet tall, he arrives with gifts for everyone in attendance. He offers big hugs freely, unperturbed by his celebrity status at the farm. After he hands out the fire starters, which he made himself and his mother says he has obtained a patent for, he knows exactly where he wants to sit and gets straight to work on a collage. 

 

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Nash and Jerry Pfeifer.

 

When Nash was in elementary school, his mother and six other mothers of boys with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) were able to obtain a closed classroom in Franklin, only for ASD students. They designed a classroom and school experience specifically for ASD children. This is where Nash’s mother, Jerry Pfeifer, met the women with whom she would start Full Spectrum Farms. 

“We got to be very close. There were four moms, and then the woman that worked with Nash at the time, and we decided that we wanted to do something,” said Pfeifer. 

The vision was to create a place where people on the autism spectrum could live and work. The idea of a farm made the most sense to Pfeifer and the other moms, primarily because they lived in Western North Carolina, a beautiful rural area. 

Through hard fundraising work and generous donations, the group was eventually able to purchase the 34-acre farm where Full Spectrum now operates. 

 

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Chickens in the Full Spectrum chicken coop.

 

Full Spectrum Farms 

Full Spectrum Farms is an organization in Cullowhee serving people impacted by ASD. Through its farm community, Full Spectrum provides independence through meaningful work, recreation and community involvement. 

The organization was officially founded in 2002 by parents of children with ASD, Nash’s mother among them. But, those parents were already working to put Full Spectrum together years before and by 2001 had already established the basis for the organization — community. That is why this year, Full Spectrum is celebrating its 20th anniversary. 

The farm has grown and evolved over its 20-year history, but the now-34-acre campus has always been a place where individuals with ASD can live, work and explore in a safe environment. The focus on organic farming and natural crafts allows for freedom of creativity, connection to the natural world and development of lifelong living and working skills such as woodworking, pottery, weaving, growing and selling organic produce and flowers. 

Surrounding the property there are walking trails anyone can come and enjoy. Clients and staff walk the farm dog, Crackers, along these trails as well. There are several projects envisioned for the property, including a new building and a more permanent pottery studio. 

Erin McManus has been with Full Spectrum Farms for almost seven years now as farm director. She coordinates weekly programs, plans special events, manages donations, cultivates relationships in the community and connects families who use the farm to other helpful resources. 

Before Full Spectrum, McManus worked in the school system, most recently at Jackson County Early College. She had one student, she says, who changed her career. This student was on the autism spectrum and when McManus had him, she was searching for resources for him over the summer and post-graduation. 

“That’s really when we see folks fall off because their support system is through the school in our community and then there’s not a whole lot,” said McManus. “I found the farm through that and had contacted them because I wanted to further my work in autism services.”

At the farm, most man-made stimuli are removed from the environment. But, there is enough natural stimuli, bugs, heat, dirt, animals, McManus says, to continue to push clients. Even though nature can be unpredictable, farms must run on a pretty regular routine — something people on the autism spectrum need in order to thrive. Chickens have to be watered every day, eggs have to be collected, the garden has to be weeded, ripe produce has to be picked on particular days of the week. 

“All of those pieces are part of a dependable routine for folks that are able to work with us,” said McManus. 

Carol West is the farm manager at Full Spectrum. She is in charge of the garden where some of the Full Spectrum clients spend their time working. The farm also has a greenhouse for starting seeds and a chicken coop where eggs are collected each day. There are a few restaurants in Jackson County that purchase produce and flowers from the farm regularly, Guadalupe Cafe, Pie Times Pizza Company and The Community Table among them. 

“This is my sanctuary also,” said West, gesturing to the sweeping views of the valley that surrounds us. 

Carol and Norman West have been with Full Spectrum Farms since the beginning. The back of Norman’s old real estate office was home to the pottery studio before Full Spectrum found its permanent home. 

“The cosmic universe just put it in our life,” said Carol. “Really, it was given to us.” 

 

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Britt Davis explains art class activities to students.

 

Britt Davis is the art instructor at the farm. She is a licensed therapist, art counselor and artist. 

“The process of making art is the biggest benefit. I always say there’s no right or wrong way to make art,” said Davis. “Just the classes alone can create a sense of calm and connection.”

Davis enjoys watching how different people come up with different creations in the same class with the same materials. She sees people in her art classes gain confidence through the process of creation. 

“The sense of mastery is a benefit too,” said Davis. 

Before the pandemic, Full Spectrum would sell clients’ artwork at the farmers market. 

“For them to be able to sell their art and make money off their own creations was something that really benefited our population,” said McManus. 

 

Pandemic 

The pandemic has been especially distressing for people on the autism spectrum. Many people with ASD often prefer highly predictable environments and routines and may experience distress or difficulties with changes to familiar structures and preferences. Difficulty with huge changes to lifestyle and routine mean that while adjusting to the isolated pandemic lifestyle was challenging, emerging from that lifestyle and returning to pre-pandemic daily patterns is also hard. 

Many people on the autism spectrum and many of the people Full Spectrum serves, have underlying health conditions that make contracting the coronavirus all the more dangerous. 

Caregivers were another factor for families with an autistic member during the pandemic. Most families at Full Spectrum have caregivers from outside the family in order to allow parents to continue working. During the pandemic that dynamic changed. As services shut down, caregivers were more difficult to come by. Many of them had to remain at home or take care of their own families, leaving clients on the autism spectrum to be cared for by family members, oftentimes elderly and at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus. 

“We had real trouble getting folks to come back after the pandemic and shutdown. For instance, we have two clients who have always come to crafts. I’ve worked here almost seven years and they have come their whole lives to crafts, but they’re not comfortable being in a group setting again,” said McManus. 

Another member of Full Spectrum still won’t leave his house. McManus brings this client art supplies and he shares his artwork with her on his porch. 

“It was probably one of the biggest upsets I’ve seen in my career. I keep saying, everyone was impacted by the pandemic and the autism community has been significantly impacted,” said McManus. “We heard from families that the other components, depression, anxiety, all of those came in because there were no services, when everything really shut down, there were no services, which means in a lot of cases, there were no caregivers. Daily routines were gone and that has been the hardest thing to come back from. I would say that across the board, that’s the biggest issue that I’m seeing is that routines were upset, and when they were removed, it’s harder to establish. So, it’s taking longer for this community to bounce back, I would say than the rest of us.”

Full Spectrum serves all ages. Before the pandemic the organization had summer camps and after school programs for children. School transport has not been restarted due to safety reasons. 

In Western North Carolina, the pandemic instigated an influx of people from around the country. Tourism Development Authority reports show increased visitation from states which the area previously had very few visitors. Additionally, people from cities around the United States relocated to rural areas  at high rates during pandemic induced shutdowns. 

McManus has had a lot of new people reach out to her about Full Spectrum’s Service during the pandemic. Most of these people are new to the area. 

Getting people back out and onto the farm will look different for everyone. McManus has adopted Temple Grandin’s idea of “A Loving Push,” as the cornerstone philosophy in her work with clients at the farm and pushes her clients accordingly. 

“My goal is to provide them a little step further, and then when they’re ready, a little step further,” said McManus. 

 

Helping out 

The presence of volunteers has also slowed down during the pandemic. The farm relies heavily on volunteers from Southwestern Community College and WCU. Students in the psychology department and occupational therapy studies have ample opportunity to work and volunteer on the farm. In order to keep things safe, the farm stopped having open days for volunteers when anyone could come to the farm and help out. Now, volunteers are required to be vaccinated to reduce risk of infection. 

Greg Dozier is a WCU student volunteering at Full Spectrum Farms. On that sunny, fall afternoon he lingers on the front porch of the main house with staff and two long-time clients, Emily and Beth, chatting before it’s time to transition to art class. 

Dozier first volunteered at the farm as a requirement for a service-learning class. That class is long over but Dozier hasn’t stopped coming to the farm. He enjoys work at the farm, being a part of the Full Spectrum team. 

“It’s become more than something I have to fulfill for a class. I like working with Emily and Beth, you can just see the difference that it makes in their lives. It just really opened my eyes to that and made me want to come back more,” said Dozier. “It’s not just helpful for them, it’s helpful for me too, to understand differences in people and how we all live and how we’re all different, but at the same time, we’re all the same.” 

 

Trunk or Treat Fundraiser 

Due to the pandemic, Full Spectrum Farms, which is always free for clients and relies completely on fundraising and grants, has missed 15 of its usual fundraisers. More than half of the annual budget is raised at an annual event called Star Light Night, a community cookout with food, drinks and live music. That event was last held in 2019. 

This year Full Spectrum Farms will have a face-to-face fundraising event. The Trunk or Treat, Yard Sale and Lasagna Dinner fundraiser will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30, at the farm. There will be a sensory sensitive time period from 5 to 5:30 p.m. and the event will be open to the public from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 per person and includes trick or treating and lasagna dinner to go. 

Volunteers and donations are always needed at Full Spectrum. Volunteers can help in the garden, tend to the chickens, assist with mechanics, mow and help with general property upkeep. For more information visit www.fullspectrumfarms.org

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