Ascendigo gives opportunity to adults and children with autism

Audrey Ryan
The Aspen Times
Olivia and Justin, her one on one at Ascendigo summer camp.
Courtesy of Julie Manning

Julie and Robert Manning never thought they would see their autistic daughter, Olivia, put on a helmet and ride a horse. As if the horseback riding wasn’t enough of a shock, they also witnessed her wakeboard, rock climb, zipline, ski, and raft, thanks to Ascendigo Autism Services.

“She would come home energetic and refreshed. She had that glow from the sun,” Julie remembered of Olivia’s time at camp.

Ascendigo Autism Services is a Roaring Fork non-profit that had its roots as a summer camp known as Extreme Sports Camp. Eventually, the summer camp evolved into a year-round outdoor recreation facilitator, comprehensive life program for adults, and behavior therapies for children, Ascendigo’s Chief Development Officer Julie Kaufman said.

“It opened up a whole new world for us,” Julie said. “I don’t even know how to explain it because it was so different from what I ever imagined Olivia would ever be able to do.”

Julie grew up in Aspen, and, one time when she came back to visit, she attended an Ascendigo charity event without even knowing what the organization was. Once she found out Ascendigo serves adults and children with autism, she knew she had to get her autistic, non-verbal daughter involved.

Olivia was 8 years old when she started traveling from Seattle to Aspen to attend Ascendigo’s summer camps. About four years ago, the Mannings relocated to Old Snowmass, so Olivia could use Ascendigo’s programs year-round.

Young Olivia learns to wakeboard during an Ascendigo summer camp. Courtesy of Julie Manning

The services Ascendigo provides for children and adults with autism extend beyond summer and winter camps, although those are what Ascendigo is best known for, Kaufman said. Ascendigo sets children and adults with autism up for success with anything from school to life skills.

Ascendigo’s Outreach Program, which is the one Olivia was involved with, supports kids from elementary school through high school with different services. In Olivia’s case, Ascendigo provided her with a staff person at school who helped her get through her daily activities and tasks.

School is less about academics and more about learning life skills for Olivia, Robert said. Some days, she does things such as going to Walmart or the grocery store with her Ascendigo staff.

“She’s able to do a lot of things because she has an Ascendigo person with her,” he said.

Going to a store with Olivia is no simple task, Julie added. However, Ascendigo staff are able to work with Olivia and help her to do everyday tasks like going to the store.

“They talk (Olivia) through it, and it’s amazing what they’re able to do with her,” Julie said. “That’s going to eventually roll over into her everyday life.”

In her eyes, the Ascendigo staff who work with Olivia are the most important part. Julie and Robert agreed they know how hard it can be to work with people with autism, especially ones who are non-verbal.

“They’re calm and really talk to these kids. Olivia can be stimming and looking elsewhere, but they’re sitting there talking to her and she is listening. She really understands (Ascendigo staff), and they take their time with her,” she said.

Because Olivia is non-verbal, her parents and the Ascendigo staff had to work to find ways for her to communicate. Although she cannot read or write, she is able to use an iPad that has tiles with labels such as “people,” “places,” “help,” “yes,” “no,” and many more to communicate her thoughts.

“We have speech therapists that totally built out her iPad, so that we could really expand her ability to communicate more,” Robert said.

Olivia’s iPad is customized to allow her to communicate her needs.

Now that Olivia is 21, she is moving into the Life Enrichment Program through Ascendigo. This program provides autistic adults with support in their day-to-day lives, Kaufman said.

“We support adults with everything from going grocery shopping, making meals, learning to ride the bus — really whatever kind of life skill support they need,” she said.

Ascendigo also helps connect adults with vocational opportunities. She added there are Ascendigo adults working at the Element Hotel and Glenwood Hot Springs.

For the Manning family, finding Ascendigo was a dream come true and enough to convince them to move to the Valley.

“If she didn’t have Ascendigo, there would be nothing. She would be (at home),” Julie said.

From the perspective of Ascendigo leadership, Kaufman said there’s a lot of pride that comes with the accomplishments they see people in their program experience.

“I think the impact Ascendigo has on the community as a whole is offering a different perspective on people with disabilities and what they can do and how much they can be,” she said.

Ascendigo Blue Aspen 2023
Theme: Western Chic
Special Guests: Hayes Carll & Allison Moorer
Date: Saturday, Feb. 18
Time: 6:00 PM MT
Location: St. Regis Aspen

To reach Audrey Ryan, email her at

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