Every day, 26-year-old Marco Cruz arrives at ASCOPA and greets the women with a friendly kiss on the cheek. It is a natural and innocent gesture. But for Cruz, it is a personal accomplishment.
ASCOPA is the Costa Rican Association of Parents and Friends of People with Autism, and Cruz is one of 33 men, aged 20 to 40, who attend the center. Created in 1986, ASCOPA is Costa Rica’s only association fully dedicated to helping autistic adults and their families.
Since its founding, ASCOPA has modified its strategies from a traditional support group to serve as an education center for 33 autistic adults. It is a place where families can work together on a series of activities both therapeutic and productive.
“Through our activities, we are able to help members learn the adaptation abilities that are lacking because of [autism],” said Martha Montenegro, one of the center’s five teachers.
Montenegro has been at ASCOPA the longest, and it shows through the relationships she has developed with her students. “Unlike what [many] people might think, it is possible to establish a deep bond with an autistic person. They do not live in their own world, as it is commonly believed,” Montenegro said.
Watching her talk to one of her students, it becomes clear that Montenegro is a master at shattering myths about the neurological disorder. After working with a student for several years, Montenegro establishes fluent conversation. One of her students, Juvenal Valerio, 36, likes to talk about holiday vacations and his family. His face lights up when sharing details about the souvenirs he bought on a recent trip.
ASCOPA was founded to improve the quality of life of students like Valerio. In 1986, ASCOPA was started by parents who were concerned about what would happen to their autistic children when they reached adulthood and could no longer attend the Children’s Neuropsychiatric School in Moravia, a suburb northeast of San José. At the time, the school was the only educational institution for autistic children. Parents talked about founding a center that could foster independence.
Ten years later, a group of parents initiated ASCOPA’s education center. Today, there are more than 20 special education schools around the country, but autistic students can’t attend after they turn 21. Only ASCOPA gives them that option.
At the center, autistic students can choose activities they feel most comfortable with, including crafts, paper recycling, hydroponic agriculture, pyrography, cooking and others.
“The work is hard and long, but the results are well worth it,” said Shirley Gutiérrez, who teaches students how to cook and help out with daily chores at home. “I have students who cook regularly in their own homes for their families, and others have learned to heat up their meals in the microwave. … The most important thing is for them to feel like they are useful and valued like adults,” she said.
In Costa Rica, no official autism statistics exist. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide, 1 in 150 people has autism. According to that estimate, Costa Rica would count approximately 8,000 autistic persons. However, a census has never determined the actual number, and no database exists to document the number of people diagnosed each year.
“The [National] Children’s Hospital has the only two doctors in the country who can properly diagnose autism in a child,” noted Maribell Madrigal, Marco Cruz’s mother and head of the ASCOPA’s development committee. For Madrigal, the public needs to be better informed about the disorder. “In 26 years … I have seen parents whose child wasn’t diagnosed [with autism] until they were teenagers or adults, making therapy so much more difficult,” Madrigal said.
ASCOPA has reached its capacity. With 33 students, the center is unable to accept new students because of the size of its current facilities, number of teachers and funding. The association relies on private donors and funds from Social Protection Council (JPS), a government agency.
“The families of many of our students can only afford small contributions,” Madrigal said.
Parents say more needs to be done. Pushed by ASCOPA members, the JPS allocated $500,000 to help the association buy land to build an integral care center. But ASCOPA needs an additional $4 million to build and staff the facilities.
Once built, that care center would also help raise public awareness to the many needs that are so far unmet for autistic Costa Ricans. “We feel a responsibility to break many of the myths people have regarding autism,” said Ignacio Dávila, principal of the ASCOPE’s education center.
Plans for the new center include a vegetable garden, pool, gym, several classrooms, research labs and permanent residences for people from remote areas of the country. “We understand that our project is big and ambitious, but this is the only way to actually meet the needs this country has,” Madrigal said.
Meanwhile, the association is seeking donations to keep the program running.
“I never get tired of asking for help since we have so many needs. We are looking for someone to give pro-bono computer classes to our students, since we recently received a donation of several computers and computer lab material that we can’t use yet,” said Madrigal.
Donations to ASCOPA can be made at:
Banco de Costa Rica
Electronic account: 1-7561130
Customer account: 152-0200-1075-61130-9