By Cheryl Dahle
North Haven, Connecticut
Budget: $7.9 million
Though its unique Learning Network, Connecticut-based Benhaven is pioneering a model program to put kids with autism, a neurological development disorder, in regular classrooms. A consultant from Benhaven's staff works with teachers, parents, peers, and autistic kids to design a vision for a child's life one year out and then identifies the steps that are necessary make that a reality. That team approach has expanded the number of Benhaven clients more than 12-fold -- and won a business-plan award from the Yale School of Management-Goldman Sachs Foundation Partnership for Nonprofit Ventures.
Benhaven's record of teacher and parent satisfaction set it apart from other mainstreaming efforts in the nation, says Stacy Hultgren, director of the Connecticut Autism Spectrum Resource Center. "Most states are doing it very poorly," she says. "Teachers don't get the training they need, or the consultants come in with a know-it-all attitude that alienates the staff. Teachers welcome Benhaven."
One reason for the Learning Network's success is that the future plans they draft are unique for each child, Hultgren says. "They do not do a cookie-cutter approach," she says. "They don't just follow one recipe for development with every child. And their method of devising future plans enlists the support of a host of adults around the child by getting them to see what they can do to help encourage the right behaviors."
Hultgren speaks from personal as well as professional experience. In addition to running a referral network for parents, Hultgren herself is the parent of an autistic teenager, Andrew. The most recent future plan that Benhaven consultants devised for Andrew addressed social skill goals. Kids with autism often have a difficult time fitting in with their peers because they can't decode the myriad nuances of human interaction, including sarcasm, humor, and embarrassment. While Andrew has been able to become friends with other boys, he had a harder time navigating the subtlety of friendships with girls, Hultgren says. One of the goals in the plan was for Andrew to become friends with a girl. "It's just unusual for an education consultant to include the social skills development along with math, writing, and academic skills," Hultgren says.
Benhaven also offers services for autistic adults. While that program originally began with a sheltered workshop, it is now an innovative community job placement program called "Real Lives." Benhaven staff work with autistic adults to help them build the skills they need to be employable, and they also work with potential employers to educate them about autism. The result is a safety net of people around that person who can help him or her navigate the challenges of a regular job. In addition to measuring traditional metrics such as length of employment, Real Lives works to integrate quality-of-life measures as target outcomes -- something the rest of the field has yet to embrace.
"We look at the success of our mission on a person-by-person basis," says executive director Larry Wood. "And that includes people learning to lead successful, happy lives."
Benhaven's success in tracking metrics has led them to serve as a model program for the state in creating new education-related services, says Charlan Corlies, director of staff training and personnel development for Connecticut's Department of Mental Retardation. "They have a culture of learning and continuous improvement. They put a huge emphasis on developing support staff and getting constant feedback and evaluation -- and they pay attention and act on what they learn. Their strength in that area has put them in a leadership role in our state," Corlies says. "When we're looking for a strong agency to pilot a program or tackle something that is new or challenging to figure out, they are one of the agencies we would depend on to help us figure it out."
Larry Wood, Director
Larry Wood started at Benhaven in an entry-level job after law school and became director in 1987. Wood is on the boards of the Connecticut Community Providers and the Connecticut Autism Resource Center and is an adjunct faculty member at the Child Studies Center at Yale University. Wood completed both his undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in special education at the University of Southern California. He served in the United States Army for two years after college. His interests include thoroughbred racing and competing in triathlons.
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