Anderson Center for Autism

This year marks the centennial of the Anderson Center for Autism based in Staatsburg, N.Y., which is dedicated to supporting individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It comprises an autism-focused residential school, two early learning centers, consulting and training services, an international center hosting programs for scholars and a network of parents, siblings and caregivers who advocate for funding and legislation to enhance the lives of autistic and neurodivergent individuals.

The center had ambitious but humble beginnings. Originally called the Anderson School, it was founded in 1924 in a basement by Dr. Victor V. Anderson, who worked in human resources at Macy’s — yes, the department store. Its students were the “troubled” children, some with special needs, of wealthy parents. It would be several years before it moved into a mansion upstate overlooking the Hudson River.

Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg, N.Y., in an undated photo (Courtesy of the Anderson Center for Autism)

The Boost spoke with Eliza Bozenski, chief development officer at the center, about the center’s transition into a focus on autism, its plans for expansion and more. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m trying to wrap my head around Dr. Anderson’s Macy’s job and how it relates to an interest in special needs. What’s the story there?

Victor Anderson was actually a [Harvard-trained] psychologist who had also worked at a hospital and clinics in Boston, and on the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. At Macy’s [while doing research on turnover] he became interested in why on a resume some people looked perfect for a role but were not successful in it, and why some who were a better fit did not necessarily have what was historically needed for that particular position.

Flash forward to today and a lot of those same questions come into play. Are we prioritizing some of those things we think have to be in place to be successful or looking at the person to see if they can fit in the role? Do they have to make eye contact, can they communicate a different way and still be successful?

When did the school’s focus turn to autism?

Its name changed from the Anderson School to the Anderson Center for Autism around 2004. The school has always served people with special needs and in the 1970s it opened its first home on the campus serving some students with autism, which was still a relatively new diagnosis. By the late ’90s, early 2000s, the school realized that autism was its area of expertise, and began to solely serve people with an autism diagnosis. It was a time diagnoses were on the rise, school systems were struggling, and these children weren’t thriving in a special education setting.

Has the recent surge in autism diagnoses affected the way the center approaches its work? 

Because the reported growth has expanded awareness it hopefully means less stigma for families, and people who feel safer asking questions.

In terms of Anderson, our work is probably reaching a bigger audience. And we’re always adapting our services. For example, our Consulting and Training Services department is seeing broader interest. It’s not just coming from school districts asking for help in developing programs or training educators, but for things like training bus drivers and working with places like Newark Airport’s sensory room.

The center focuses on Applied Behavior Analysis [ABA], which has faced some criticism of late.

There’s an interesting dialog going on around ABA. But at Anderson we specifically serve people who are severely impacted by autism, not those who can function independently, go on to hold down jobs, drive, etc. We serve people who will always need some level of constant support. ABA has proven to be very successful for this population. Is it the right method for everyone? I don’t think anyone would say that.

Does Anderson have plans for expansion?

We started serving preschool children over the last few years. The [size of the] waitlist for early intervention programs in New York is heartbreakingly long, and we were able to open a center in Pine Plains and then in Latham. It’s a great example of the community expressing a need.

We also have a growing number of graduates who remain on campus as they await their residential programs due to the lack of appropriate vacancies. Anderson, for example, which currently has 24 group homes, is not developing additional adult residential opportunities. We’re planning to expand an existing building on campus that currently serves as residencies for our grad students and next to that will be a new state-of-the-art training facility to assist other organizations that serve adults.

We’re also starting to collaborate and partner with doctors and dentists to help them as they develop course work in their education and college programs.

Anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to mention?

I really want to think the team members who work at the center. There are almost 1,000 people and a majority of them are unsung heroes working in things like operations. They’re the people you know are there making it happen every single day but aren’t necessarily talked about in interviews.

So, a big thank you to all of them who helped us get to the centennial — the ones who worked every day through COVID, sleep on campus during bad weather to make sure the pathways are clear so the kids can get to school. They’re incredible people who deserve all the recognition in the world.

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