ASPEN INSTITUTE FOR BEHAVIORAL ASSESSMENT
Visit by Lon Woodbury, MA, IECA, CEP, February 2010
The Aspen Institute for Behavioral Assessment building sits in the middle of a field in Syracuse, UT, which reduces distractions that might come from being located in a more developed community. Its closest neighbor is the Island View program. This proximity allows key staff to attend to responsibilities for both programs.
The Institute is a licensed hospital with 26 beds for those teens who show puzzling behavior. The average number of previous placements for their clients is two. Despite the efforts of these previous programs, staff there had been unable to determine the causes of the self-destructive behaviors. For the suitable child, usually those who are emotionally volatile, no intervention has worked. The next logical step is to obtain the complete assessment that Aspen Institute offers. Clients are referred from other programs all over the country.
The average stay in this secure facility is six weeks. The first week is used to establish a baseline, evaluating how they respond to the environment and determining the appropriateness of the medications with which the child arrived. With this information the Institute can then order tests and changes that will give a better idea of what might be causing the negative behaviors. The whole environment is used as a diagnostic tool. For example, several hours each day are devoted to school. The Institute is not an accredited school, nor do they grant credits for the work, although the school work is matched to the level of achievement for each child. The primary purpose is to place the child in a normal school environment and watch the response. This can provide valuable clues as to the "why" of the negative behaviors.
Most of their clients need help with identity development rather than emotional growth. Although the typical resident is emotionally volatile, the Institute does not enroll those with extreme behaviors. For example, they routinely work with children with serious eating disorders, but if, for example, it has advanced to where they need feeding tubes, they refer them on to another facility better equipped to handle that severe a condition.
They have access to sophisticated testing equipment, using what seems necessary to determine exactly what is going on inside the client's thinking. Although they do have the equipment to do brain scans and sophisticated neurological testing, Associate Executive Director Mike Bulloch prefers at this time to outsource these tests, gaining the advantage of the insight of a highly skilled and trained neurologist.
As Mike Bulloch explained, the overriding goal for all clients is to help them find their humanity or essence. They do this by using the classrooms, the client bedrooms, groups, therapy and tests to tease out the puzzles of their behavior. At the end of the whole process is a very detailed report that hopefully gives a roadmap of what treatment and/or experience is needed for the client to heal and work toward having a healthy future.
The inside of the facility was clean, with warm colors as decor. The young clients seemed fairly relaxed. Some showed signs of distress that seemed to come from internal tensions rather than from the program since the staff seemed friendly and alert, treating them with respect and firmness. As an example of the staff treating the clients with respect, I was informed that restraints are never used. On infrequent occasions a therapeutic hold is used, but that is the extent of it, and then only when the child appears to be a possible danger to him/ herself or others, and then only until the child calms down.
Aspen Institute serves a very specific niche, that of emotionally volatile teens whose problems, despite the best efforts of professionals in the past, are a puzzle.