student and instructor skiing

It’s Valentine’s Day, so naturally I’ve been thinking a lot about love. About one family’s year of profound transformation since their son first arrived at The Center for Discovery just one year ago. About one resident who was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and took steps in the swimming pool for the first time since 2015. About our group of dedicated staff – of which 115 have been with us for more than 20 years. And of a group of students and residents who are bursting with excitement because they just landed roles in “The Little Mermaid.” They all represent the power of love and they are all part of our community at The Center for Discovery® in upstate New York, an educational, residential, medical and research agency for adults and children with autism and other chronic complex conditions. The lessons we have learned here over the last four decades resonate far beyond our hamlet in the Catskills.

Empathy, hope and love drive our work – and the lives of people who were otherwise isolated and marginalized have been transformed. It’s about human dignity and respect – and it ripples through our entire community from the way we appreciate our staff, to the way we care for the people we serve.

One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. In the U.S., that figure is 26%, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A growing number of studies report a link between poverty and disability, with the widespread social and economic exclusion of millions of people who are currently unable to work, live, or fully participate in their communities. The costs in both economic and human terms are staggering – and it’s unacceptable.

Traditional models of care must be disrupted. We pioneered, advocate and practice a lifestyle-medicine approach. The results are remarkable. Kids who were angry, anxious and obese have transformed, through working on our farm, eating nutritious meals and exercising daily. And most tantrums are a thing of the past.

Technology must be harnessed to push the frontiers of innovation in this space. The use of biometric sensors in classrooms for instance, can monitor a child’s level of stress, identifying triggers so they and their teachers can be supported before a tantrum, rather than afterwards – which improves everyone’s quality of life.  We must embrace sustainable design, building green environments that contribute to the well-being of our students, our residents and our planet.

So what’s at the core of a supportive and loving program? Treating the whole person and evaluating the underlying conditions — like gastrointestinal problems, sleep disorders and anxiety — that are often overlooked. A focus on the importance of good nutrition as well as incorporating exercise and the arts into a daily program. And equally important, a focus on ability, not disability, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to realize their full potential, no matter the physical or mental limitations. Our students and residents learn skills that help them integrate into society. This approach shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is.

If we do not innovate and upend the status quo, we will fail our children, and by extension society as a whole. We need to look beyond disability-centric thinking, do away with the labels that restrict possibilities and create precision treatment that is tailored to each individual. We need to dig deeper into the similarity of brain conditions that connect us all, whether it’s autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s, dementia or depression. We must move to a future that surpasses traditional expectations.

Our obligation is to help people live their best lives and if we do our work well, then everyone benefits. I’ve always said if you care hard enough for everyone, everything always works out. But in the end it comes back to love – and we should be doubling down on spreading that love around. The results can be life-changing.

Original version published on Medium, 2019