How Summit Achievement Works with Students on the Autism Spectrum

For many years, Summit Achievement has been known by professionals as a great placement for clients who struggle with high-functioning autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Level 1. While individuals with this diagnosis are unique more than they are similar, some typical characteristics include:

  •         Impairment in social functioning
  •         Difficulty with reading and managing both verbal and non-verbal social cues
  •         Patterns of repetitive behavior
  •         Rigid thinking
  •         Difficulty with transitions
  •         Sensory and executive functioning challenges

In some cases, a student may enroll with features of ASD but it has been previously unclear if a diagnosis is appropriate.  This lack of clarity in a student’s life can often lead to secondary struggles including:

  •         Social anxiety
  •         Poor performance in school despite high intelligence
  •         A lack of close friends and relationships
  •         Excessive video game or internet use
  •         Disorganization
  •         Family conflict
  •         Oppositional behavior
  •         Substance use   

Here are some of the ways in which Summit Achievement works effectively with these students:

Social Skills Development

The teams at Summit Achievement consist of a maximum of 8 students.  A team of 8 would have 3 full-time direct care staff and a full-time therapist.  The staff and therapist always work to develop rapport and build a relationship with any client that joins the team.  This relationship is then the platform from which all therapeutic work is conducted. We want students to feel safe and know that our staff will help keep them both physically and emotionally safe throughout the program.  These groups may have a few individuals on the autism spectrum, but will always include students that do not have this diagnosis as well. This creates a more realistic social setting for students on the spectrum to practice social skills.  With constant supervision, as well as daily process groups and regular individual therapy, there are many opportunities for students to work on social skills such as active listening, appropriate use of humor, body language, eye contact, and paraverbal communication.  Furthermore, the structure of the program provides many proscribed yet socially intense encounters with peers, such as doing assigned chores in the wilderness on a cold morning, working together to make it to the top of a summit, or conducting a process group beneath the stars.   The intense, structured therapeutic setting allows for a safe space for students to be themselves and for other students to accept each other’s weaknesses while celebrating the strengths that inevitably emerge. As students move through the level system and new students join the team, each student gets to practice their skills as a leader and teacher for others.   We see significant gains in social skills over a 6-8 week period as well as dramatic increases in self-confidence in social situations and correlating decreases in social anxiety.

Cognitive Rigidity

Cognitive rigidity and a tendency to view things as “all good” or “all bad” can be a hallmark of individuals with ASD, particularly when in a new setting.  Summit’s supportive staff are trained to be patient and work with individuals to slowly ease them out of their comfort zone in order to experience new things while challenging patterns of thinking that lead to rigidity.  Perhaps the best teacher of this cognitive flexibility is the wilderness. Plans change due to weather, a campsite being taken by another group, a team hiking slower or faster than anticipated or a sudden lightning storm.  All of these things require individuals to learn how to adapt, adjust and become more flexible. As individuals with ASD learn to adapt and adjust, and view those around them doing the same, it is the job of the therapist and direct care staff to help these individuals draw on these unique experiences and generalize them. Once these generalizations are realized, the can be connected and applied to experiences each week in the classroom, on a family session or on a family visit.

This also requires that we are flexible when we can be, helping students manage sensory issues, whether around types of food, required clothing, or personal hygiene.  It also may require staff intervention around social interactions or allowing an individual to take space. Our staff are trained to work with individuals with ASD and view rigidity as a symptom, rather than as a form of opposition or defiance.


Times of transition and change can be difficult for individuals on the spectrum.  Our program is designed to have many natural transitions. Our students transition each week from attending school for three days to going out in the wilderness for four days, and then back again.  Direct care staff transition in and out each week. With rolling admission students are often graduating and leaving the team or new students are enrolling. All of these transition points can be stressful for all, but particularly for individuals on the spectrum.  In an effort to help our clients manage transitions and change we make sure that all transitions are always accompanied by frontloading, acknowledgment and processing after the fact. By making an individual aware of a coming transition, taking the time to develop a plan of how to manage it, acknowledging when the transition is occurring and then following up afterwards, clients begin to develop the skills to manage transitions and gain confidence in their ability to handle change in the future.   Again it becomes the job of the direct care staff and therapist to help individuals generalize this skill to future situations.

Addictive Behaviors

It is common for individuals on the spectrum to lack the understanding and knowledge of how to manage their unique selves in the world and many have developed negative coping strategies to help them manage social anxiety.  This can often lead to addiction to video-games, internet and/or substances (often marijuana). While at Summit Achievement students will not have access to any of these negative coping strategies and will work with their therapist and staff to gain insight into understanding their addiction, gain insight into the underlying causes of this addiction and develop healthy, positive strategies for the future.  

If you have a particular question or a particular case you would like to discuss with us, please click here.