For 19 years, Firefly Autism was located in a small farmhouse at the corner of Yale and Holly streets in Denver, and for more than a decade the space was sufficient as Firefly grew. Over the last several years, demand for Firefly’s services has grown exponentially, resulting in a waiting list of more than 120 individuals, says executive director Jesse Ogas. With a mission to help children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families thrive, the organization maximized space as best it could. It moved the IT room to a closet to install more bathrooms and held Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings and parent consultations in small niches around the building. Finally, Ogas says, it became clear: “We can’t grow without more space.”
In 2019, after a successful capital campaign and negotiations with Jeffco Public Schools, Firefly bought the former North Lakewood School—most recently the Sobesky Academy—a two-story, 30,000-square-foot building at 2001 Hoyt Street built in 1947. Abatement and remodeling took months, but on June 22, the first students walked through the doors.
Like most organizations, Firefly Autism had to immediately pivot its operations when the coronavirus pandemic hit Colorado in mid-March, quickly adopting a telehealth model, slowly reopening in-home and center-based services, and postponing the grand opening of the new facility. Currently, 20 kids are attending programs at the new center, but there are 180 kids, ages 18 months to 21 years, on its waitlist. With 17 classrooms, the center will eventually be able to serve 160 students.
“We don’t just work and treat the child, we treat the whole family,” Ogas says, making sure to highlight Firefly’s parent engagement model. “We treat their extended family by giving tools of support for the family, so that once the child leaves the center, they are also engaged at home.”
Nicole Taylor’s grandson Luciano—Bubba to his family—began therapy with Firefly at the age of three. At the time he was nonverbal, but that changed quickly when therapists started working with him at home.
“Within the week, he had captured a few words; within a month, he was talking, and within the first, three months, there was a huge difference,” Taylor says. “He has a whole new world now.”
For Taylor, it’s been a welcome relief. She no longer lives in a constant state of fear, wondering what Bubba’s quality of life would be, if he’d be bullied at school or not have the same opportunities as others. But it took the whole family engaging in Bubba’s therapy to see real progress.
“Everything that happened in therapy, you’re encouraged to keep doing,” Taylor says. “It’s skillsets and actions that you need to repeat throughout his day, every day, even on the weekends. It changes how you interact, how you talk to him, how you bring new ideas to him, how you encourage him. So, it changes your entire life and it’s just amazing the difference that it’s made.”
Firefly offers telehealth, home-based and center-based services in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy that uses the science of learning and behavior to increase communication, social skills, confidence, and overall quality of life for kids with ASD. It helps replace problem behaviors with functional behaviors, ensuring that clients can successfully integrate into the community and school system. By working with highly skilled clinical and board-certified staff in a one-to-one instructional model, Firefly individualizes learning plans to meet the needs of each client.
Over the years, Firefly has seen its students thrive, graduating high school with top honors and continuing on into college. The organization also works with school districts, providing support to teachers and staff, and hosts parent workshops, trainings and support groups, and support groups for siblings.
“We’re an organization that is really driven by data and science and identifying needs within this community, figuring out how we [can] take it to the next level to support our community on all levels,” Ogas says.
The new facility in Lakewood expands Firefly’s capacity to do just that. There are plans to start a neuro-typical daycare—by late fall or early next year—so that parents can drop off all their kids each day in the same place, Ogas says. Firefly is also developing a first-of-its-kind adult program during the evenings so that adults with ASD don’t get “lost in the shuffle,” Ogas says. “When you’ve met a child on the spectrum, you’ve met a single child on the spectrum, not one is alike,” Ogas says. “It’s the same with adults. You won’t find one person on the spectrum that is like any other, they’re all unique, they’re all different. They all have different talents. They all have different aspirations.”
Firefly also intends to become a diagnostic center this fall to help address the severe diagnosis backlog. According to Children’s Hospital Colorado, the wait for children under age three is about six to eight months, for adolescents it can be well over a year, and for ages in between it is much harder to tell but could be about a year or more. COVID has made the latest tracking difficult. “And without a diagnosis, insurance companies won’t pay for therapy. And so that’s time that these little guys are losing that they’ll never get back.”
Bubba is now four years old and was one of the first students to start attending classes at Firefly’s new center. Although his telehealth and in-home therapists had been attempting to potty train him for months, within the first week of going back to classes at Firefly, he was trained. Each day, he can’t wait to tell his grandma all about what he did.
“Firefly has changed his life, his trajectory,” says Taylor, who now serves on Firefly’s Board of Directors. “And, of course, ultimately it’s changed ours too.”