Autistic students soar in unique program for young adults

Many of Hidden Wings students participate in Art of Autism events. This is an article from the June 14, 2013 Santa Barbara Newspress. The Art of Autism has been wanting to feature a story about Hidden Wings for many months. At the end of the story I’ve included more photos. They have classes in kayaking, drumming, horse care, hiking, cooking, photography, digital media, yoga, and art exhibits. Debra Hosseini

Hidden Wings helps students soar : School aids autistic children and adults


Katrina and Amy May
Hidden Wings instructor Amy May, right, counsels student Katrina Guttierrez as she shoots a still-life photo for a mock ad campaign

June 14, 2013 6:12 AM

When Solvang resident Katrina Gutierrez first discovered Hidden Wings school, she rarely left home, had little concept of time and numbers and was uncomfortable speaking to strangers.

Now, after four years surrounded by the founders, instructors and fellow students at the haven for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum, Katrina has taken flight into a new life.

She has developed a talent for photography and digital art. A wall-sized mural she made of Dolly Parton, from Katrina’s bedroom wall, has been transformed into digital work and exhibited at an art gallery on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

She’s now at work creating her own “Glamour Girl” fashion magazine in the genre of the 1950s, filled with her own photography and graphic layouts. The 23-year-old also holds a job at New Frontiers Market in Solvang and has widened her circle of friends.

Today, the nonprofit Hidden Wings will celebrate the end of its third school year, and successes such as Katrina’s, with an open house from 6 to 9 p.m. at its small “sensory friendly” schoolhouse at 517 Atterdag Road.

Founded in 2009 by the Rev. James Billington and his wife, Dr. Julia Billington, Hidden Wings started as an experiment that erupted from their frustration that little higher education or vocational training was available for two of their sons who are on the autism spectrum.

Hidden Wings has become a comprehensive scholastic and social outlet that includes digital imagery courses, extensive outdoor education with kayaking and hiking, language and math courses, drum therapy, yoga, and life skills.

“It helped me expose my art way more than I could,” Katrina said of the school. “I couldn’t do that on my own. I don’t go out that much. Photography helped me expand my art a lot more. It put me in a new direction that I didn’t know.”

Digital art instructor Amy May is enthused by what she sees in Katrina, who is considered high functioning on the autism scale.

“She’s overflowing with ideas,” Ms. May said one afternoon in Solvang, while helping the young woman student adjust an advertising layout. “She does a lot of visual research for inspiration.”

The Billingtons, who have invested their savings in the venture so as not to have to accept government funds or enforce strict tuition requirements, find fulfillment in the successes of their students.

In addition to Katrina, student Kevin Hosseini received an Award for Excellence from Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith last September in Washington, D.C., and saw his “Bus or Cycle” painting displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s Dillon Ripley Center.

Two students have full-time jobs and another is headed to college. One student is an online animator for Disney Studios in Burbank and one young man has published a book. New students appear regularly.

Jim Billington and his wife, Dr. Julia Billington, founded Hidden Wings in 2009.

The mounting successes, the Billingtons say, are all part of the plan to make the word “autism” more acceptable and to ensure those in the spectrum are not marginalized.

Labels, Dr. Billington said, don’t mean much in today’s society. Those with autism, or perhaps a diagnosis of attention deficit or depression or other issues, are everywhere in society.

“The point is they are people who have great potential,” she said. “But they have no way of developing that potential after high school.”

During today’s open house, the Billingtons will showcase the school’s computer lab and its use of adaptive technology, including experimental software from Google, called “Sketchup,” that is useful for the autistic population.

Visitors will be able to use a number of drums handmade by the designer Remo Belli specifically for the “autistic ear,” the Rev. Billington said.

“Drumming is so foundational that the students are now making their own instruments,” he added.

The Rev. Chuck Stacy, of Solvang, is a backer of the school.

“I can’t say enough about the energy, effort, spirit and innovation they’ve shown,” the retired pastor said. “It’s hard. People don’t know how to respond (to autistic children) or get involved. It’s real easy. Come over. It’s really rewarding.”

Carpinteria parent Debra Hosseini is the founder of “The Art of Autism” project, and her son has been involved with Hidden Wings since its inception.

“Hidden Wings is a unique program that develops students’ competence by nurturing their inherent talents,” Ms. Hosseini said.

To allow her 12-year-daughter, Molly, to participate in Hidden Wings’ courses, Avra Douglas drives to Solvang from her Santa Monica home.

“As the mother of a sensitive, artistic, musical, beautiful, 12-year-old autistic girl, I was thrilled to find the magical environment of Hidden Wings,” she explained. “Jim and Julia encourage creativity, growth and a wonderful holistic sense of unity throughout this remarkable center they’ve created.”

Sherlene Allen brings her three sons, 13, 15 and 17, to various Hidden Wings offerings.

After being introduced to some students and courses there, the boys were happy, Ms. Allen said, and told her they “felt like they had found a home.”

“I was so excited – finally a place where each of them felt a connection and acceptance,” she said.

Hidden Wings, Ms. Allen said, “was exactly what I was looking for.”

Dr. Billington said she hopes that, with more financing, the school can “branch out in different directions, with more art and career paths. It’s just so frustrating as a parent. People say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ You just want to say ‘Yes. I can overcome this hurdle.'”

This month, Hidden Wings is expecting a visit by renowned photographer Carol Highsmith, who is in the midst of a multiyear project to photograph 21st century America for the Library Of Congress. The Rev. Billington’s father, James, is the librarian of Congress.

Ms. Highsmith plans to photograph Hidden Wings students in nature, with horses and using their drum therapy.

The potential exposure from such attention, the founders hope, could allow more course offerings, and maybe a more residential program.

“We’re open to kids to follow whatever dream they have,” Dr. Billington said.


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One reply on “Autistic students soar in unique program for young adults”
  1. Good day,

    I’m busy with a study on Animal assisted Therapy for children with autism. Can you please send me some details about your school: what your programs entail, who your trained professionals are that conducts the services (especially those involved in animal assisted therapy), what the outcomes are and how you measure the results. It will also be appreciated if you can include one of your success stories.

    This will really be of great help to me and I would really appreciate it if you can help because I think that you run a very special school for these wonderful children and I would really like to include you in my study.

    Thanking you in advance
    Erika Roberts

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