Photo courtesy of Ascendigo Autism Services.

By Betina Infante

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day and the focus for 2021 is to “Celebrate Difference.” This year, Carbondale-based Ascendigo Autism Services [Ascendigo] is at the forefront of a shift in approach from spreading awareness to promoting acceptance. Ascendigo, the Autism Society of America and several other autism organizations are calling for change that will further safeguard the rights of people on the autism spectrum ensuring they participate fully in society. The goal is to transcend “awareness” and bring greater focus on “acceptance:” genuine openness that enables greater opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable health care and comprehensive long-term services for those with autism.
In 2020, one in 54 U.S. children was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The diagnosis is more common in boys, with one in 34 boys identified with autism. (CDC, 2020)
Since 2004, Ascendigo has been providing one-of-a-kind opportunities for personal growth and independence for individuals on the spectrum. Ascendigo’s summer sports camp offers life-affirming experiences, including horseback riding, hiking, whitewater rafting, and climbing. Ascendigo also offers employment services, in-home behavioral therapy and individualized life-coaching.
“Ascendigo is the only camp in Colorado that understands the unique needs of kids on the spectrum,” report Nancy and Andy Carr of Greenwood Village. “It helped our son obtain confidence that was previously unattainable. Ascendigo is a ray of hope for our son, in a world that is not easy for a person with autism — all because Ascendigo cares about making a difference in the lives of its campers!” Their son now lives in Carbondale full-time with the support of Ascendigo’s Life Enrichment program for adults.

Moving Beyond Awareness
Ascendigo’s flagship project is to build a permanent education campus that serves the autism community on its recently purchased 126-acre property in Missouri Heights, currently called Ascendigo Ranch. The plan is to compliment its premiere summer camp with year-round outdoor adventure sports, equine therapy, and experiential educational programs, customized for people with autism and the people who work with them. Detailed plans for the ranch are available at
“We strongly believe that the autistic individuals we serve need to be part of the community. The shift toward ‘acceptance’ is a call to action — we are asking people to open their minds to people who are different and underserved, and to recognize that they have the same rights as the rest of us,” explains Peter Bell, Ascendigo CEO.
The Ascendigo Ranch plans have been enthusiastically embraced by some and opposed by others. Those in favor see the ranch as a meaningful community-serving use for the land that is otherwise slated for up to 21 high-end homes on the Whitecloud Ridge/Harmony Heights subdivisions.
In order to bring the ranch to fruition, Ascendigo will need more supporters like Missouri Heights resident Michelle Ferguson-Cook, who said “Initially I was concerned and thought Not in My Back Yard! But then I stepped back, asked questions, and made an informed decision. This is not a big investment group. I would much prefer to view a ranch with open space instead of a bunch of homes that would likely impact our resources more. I feel it would be incredibly selfish not to welcome Ascendigo Ranch with open arms,” she explained.
“My concern was the use of well and irrigation water, but after speaking to Ascendigo management and the engineering company, it was clear that they have thoughtfully considered the use of water,” added Alan Caniglia, former president and now board member of the Fox Run HOA. “I do not see water as an issue and believe that we will have better control of our irrigation water by better coordinating our call for water with Ascendigo’s since we share a common ditch. It’s better to deal with Ascendigo than with a new developer-directed HOA,” Caniglia concluded.
Residents opposed to the project have formed a non-profit called Keep Missouri Heights Rural (KMOHR). Their concerns center on water-use, fire hazard, increased traffic and noise. When asked if there was a point of agreement with Ascendigo, David Aguilar, KMOHR spokesperson, said: “Not really. This is a corporate enterprise that wants to build an open-ended, expansive complex. The impact will be disastrous to the neighborhood. People living here have saved and sacrificed to escape the urban sprawl, or ‘Californication’ taking place on the valley floor.” He notes that “Working with people on the spectrum is an admirable goal,” but concludes, “Establishing the Ascendigo camp here in Missouri Heights is not. The good of the few does not always translate into the good of the many. Threatening people’s way of life, their personal investments, in a rush to build and pave over historic rural lands, illuminate the night sky, clog small rural dirt roads with traffic, dust and noise, deplete critical water supplies, and threatening the entire valley with wildfire doesn’t make sense.”

The Conundrum of Acceptance
Fears fans emotions that can obstruct acceptance, no matter the facts. The bottom line, however, is that there are no alternative facts, only differences of opinion that can be reconciled.
Let’s celebrate acceptance and work on reconciling differences on April 2, and beyond!