Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Retreat center in the Sangre de Cristos

on 2012 January 21

We bought some land on the East side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, near Angel Fire. Here’s what it looks like in October:

Quick specs on the land: 100 acres, 9,200 feet above sea level, 13-18 inches of rain

The big idea

My vision is for an autistic-run retreat center. The place will be built for spiritual renewal and communal living, a place to be yourself and connect to others and to nature in a simple direct way. There will be simple buildings with kitchens, a place for tents and bunk beds, and a place for meetings and meals. Churches and non-profits will be able to use the space. Participants will be able to walk down to the cliffs or to other places to be alone in the woods.

Some of the features of the management and architecture that I’m currently envisioning are:

1. It is compact and accessible. Each building will be wheelchair accessible, and the whole place will be clustered for easy access. It will not be sprawling like a typical campground. Cars will be kept away from the area with the buildings, and there will be no RVs. This will allow it to be scaled down for walking, not for cars.

2. It is built for communal experiences, not for escaping. There will be only a few private rooms and everything else will be done together. People can contribute to the whole group regardless of their age or position in a family. You can choose solitude by going away from the center, or choose to engage by going into the center. It is not for the kind of vacation that involves getting away from people or consuming entertainment. It is much more geared to working with and being with other people.

3. It will have a light environmental footprint, mainly by being communal and tightly clustered. Plans include solar electricity and water heating, solar cooking, simple construction, composting toilets, and rainwater harvesting. We’ll try to bring in as little as possible – mainly food, and keep trash to a minimum.

4. It is about options over conformity. Groups are different; people are different. Some groups will rotate chores like cooking and clean up, and others will hire helpers for that. Groups can have whatever kind of meals they want. Using tents gives privacy, or being in a bunk room gives community. A communal experience succeeds when it is possible to meet a variety of different needs.

5. It is about convenience and efficiency, not about “roughing it”. The work involved in providing for all the daily needs of a big group of people should be minimized. There is no virtue in being uncomfortable. Therefore we don’t anticipate hauling water, cooking on camp stoves, walking long distances to a shower, or any of the other inconveniences that are often experienced when camping out. Hundreds of design details need to be worked out so people can, for example, wash laundry, charge cell phones, keep personal items handy, and get through the day with a minimum of hassle.

The money

The land is only perhaps 20% of the total costs, and we don’t have money for the rest of it. So this has to become a bigger process in order to work. It should ultimately be profitable or at least pay for staff. People normally pay $50-100 per night to go to retreat centers, and my idea is that this one could charge substantially less and still cover costs, by being very efficient.

My history

I have an engineering mindset about things, so when I’ve attended other retreats, particularly those held on college campuses, I’ve said to myself, “there has got to be a better way.” From there, I kept on pondering the architecture ideas. I’ve been amazed at how expensive these experiences can be, and the result can be cumbersome and regimented. There are long distances in the heat of the summer, no place to cook anything, and too few ways to get any specialized need taken care of. This center will address those kinds of needs.

A second relevant part of my background is in gardening and permaculture. This interest is also about efficiency but more from an environmental land management perspective.

A third thread from my background is quakerism, with its communal decision making, honest relationships, simplicity, and related factors that lead me to believe that the way environments are set up can foster genuine growth.


The process of building this is an opportunity for growth for everyone involved – staff and visitors. I don’t want to lose sight of that in the effort to get things done. However, there is a balance between a focus on the self and a focus on the whole. Yes, it should be therapeutic, in the general sense of helping people align with their growth path, work through challenges, and have life-changing experiences. It should not focus so much on the individual though, the way therapy is too often limited to the shallow goal of just changing a single person’s behavior. Factors that can make the work environment therapeutic include a general atmosphere of respect, participation in decision making, and a focus on finding ones role as a contributor to a large project. I don’t want to make this about “helping people with autism”, which paints autism as a problem.

Underlying all this is a general truth that we all go through life carrying burdens, and this fact of life is not a bad thing. Burdens are ways that we prevent ourselves from being free – past traumas, blind spots, anxieties, beliefs and judgments. These burdens may look like weaknesses from the outside, and in our fix-it society we may have subject ourselves to programs aimed to exterminate parts of ourselves that others don’t like. Particularly if we are autistic we may have gotten the message “There is something wrong with you.” So it feels very important to me to treat those burdens as very private things that we are given to carry for a larger purpose. It is like an assignment from the soul – “Here, carry this.” If we treat them as gifts, and if we carry them tenderly and with dignity, we can, from the inside, turn those weights into strengths. Our paths of development are unique. Especially as autists (people of the self) we are each on our own journey, which is often not clear to anyone else. There is no specific person who is a “therapist” in this larger sense of development.

For me this project is part of finding my own voice. It is a chance to put together things from many threads of my past interests – building, sustainability, intentional community, and decision making. I haven’t taken my own perspective in life enough.

Why autistic run?

Being autistic is partly about being disadvantaged or disabled by a lack of acceptance. I want to use the land to challenge the powerless position of our people. People have told me that this idea is too difficult (just imagine the cost of insurance, road maintenance, and other complexities!) and that I should instead help people by giving away money in the form of scholarships to go to retreats elsewhere. Perhaps some feel that autistic people are incapable of doing anything complex, or that we shouldn’t own anything – that we shouldn’t have power. My intuition tells me that this idea might be hard for some people to hear, and might even be threatening to some people.

Autistic people can have a tendency to become disabled by typical institutions, as we are automatically the losers in the game of social status. Having a business or large project like this be run by autistic people is a key to making it an experience of not being disabled, because that status game won’t be played out in the typical way. Coming to work on the land, you will be coming into autistic space, where the social rules are shaped to fit our way of being. One of our strengths is that we have a tendency to work towards a whole vision without as much ego involvement and without competition or politics. An autistic run project in autistic space can focus on the contributions, the work and the results, and not the congratulations and the winners. If we decide for ourselves how we want to live, how to run our own businesses, how to be friends with each other, and how to contribute to the world, then we are no longer just the customers of the services that the autism industry doles out.

Non-autistics can be there of course, but I don’t feel they should be there in positions of power or in great enough numbers to take over. That would take away the advantages of effectively working together and experiencing the freedom and bonding that is possible in autistic space. We can help each other remember to think and communicate in our own voices, and to maintain our own perspectives. On the other hand, in a mixed team, the terms of the conversation are more likely to change into ways that don’t fit with how we think, and we might be more likely to back down.

Organizational challenges

Autistic people may have less experience in running big projects than others, and we may have a hard time getting organized, but these could be reflections of some collective burdens that we have to carry together as we work them out. There has never been an autistic economy, and there is only the beginning of an autistic culture. We are new at this.

We may find that to achieve the same outcomes that neurotypical people would achieve, we will need to find new ways that fit us better. This could involve the way contracts are made, the way expectations for work results are presented and negotiated, and many other things. It is not necessarily a given that we should conform to the general ways of the Americans. There are other groups that live within the country but have very different ways – the Amish being an obvious example. Although we aren’t a religion and we don’t usually (or ever?) have an extended living/working community, we do have a different way of perceiving the world, and a different way of thinking, which could give rise to many differences in culture if given the chance.

It might turn out that when it is time for the visitors to come and interact with us, there may be sparks, and again this is just part of what we have to work out.

I feel it is pretty important to make positions to fit people, rather than to make people fit into positions. Each person has different gifts and needs, and there won’t be any guaranteed fairness that what one person gives is equal to what someone else gives.

The factors of profit and ownership are an open question for me. If we do things so-called normally, we will have people who own and other people who work for the owners, which doesn’t feel entirely good. Alternately a non-profit sets up a different power arrangement, which can have other problems. Autists seem to be universally adamant about our integrity with respect to power-imbalanced relationships – we need to retain our autonomy as independent spirits, and typical employment relationships can be a threat to us.

Because of the simultaneous need for up-front clarity of expectations and the need for gaining experience in the face of the unknown, we may have to give special recognition the variable of time in work relationships. Time can be very different in relationships for autists as compared to others. For example, we might not be able to answer questions on the spot, particularly about commitments. In the realm of employment, there may be a way to build the time variable into the expectations, so that the need for a change in a person’s contribution or compensation can be handled in an orderly and unambiguous way.

Why reinvent the wheel?

There are a thousand or more retreat centers in the US designed for small conferences or spiritual renewal. I made a mental detour to consider using one of them for what I was envisioning, but came to the conclusion that what is important here is the process from the ground up. I’m thinking of one person from Israel who thought it might be possible to come to New Mexico to participate in this. His particular spirit strikes me as tuned with nature in a way that would allow him to know, over the course of some time contemplating it, who the animals are who live there, and how they move, and other aspects of the environment. Supposing my intuition is right about that, what is the value of this skill or activity? In our economic system it has basically no value. But still I find myself motivated to serve rice to the people meditating over animal tracks (that was just my fleeting vision of it); or more generally speaking, I want to make it possible for autists to serve according to their specialized talents. It feels powerful to convene a place in the woods for these sensitive independents to found a new enterprise, not just to fulfill a job position in some existing enterprise.

If it starts with the heart, perhaps it will be a magic place where people working there or visiting there will love it in a way that encourages them to move forward in their paths. I also hope it will be a place where people will fall in love with each other.

There can also be an intergenerational aspect to it – a multi-age summer camp to provide autistic space to younger people. This would be very new territory.

Global contributions

This project might show something important to the wider world: that the supposed 3.5 million dollars that “it costs” to raise and support the average autistic person for her life is not a necessary expense. Generally speaking, we want to contribute, not be a cost to society. By creating autistic spaces and supporting each other, we may be able to provide powerful counterexamples to the prevailing myths around our limitations and the need for constant, expensive, and damaging behavior control.

Beyond just doing this one little enterprise on a tiny piece of the earth, what is our global contribution? We’re not even asking the right question when we assume that we are a cost to society. Consider how the political system is incapable of solving big problems, and how a quagmire of cultural assumptions about race, gender, power, and privilege perpetuates the cycle of wars, environmental catastrophes, and poverty. Most people can’t change those big assumptions because most people are wired to replicate the thoughts of the people around them. But some of us have to think independently; we can’t think any other way. That’s our burden, which is called a disability. I feel we were given that burden to address the bigger problems, which others cannot. We haven’t started doing our job in any internationally visible way because we are still isolated and many of us are dispirited and believe we are broken. Projects like this one could help awaken us as a community of givers.

22 responses to “Retreat center in the Sangre de Cristos

  1. Dave Hamilton says:

    So happy to hear you express your vision in both ideals and practice . You have an uncommon understaning of the problems that confront autistics and the drive and compassion to tackle them make you a hero in my world . I would love to see this place become a reaity and hope you will find a way to let me help .

  2. juliemckay says:

    What a wonderful opportunity you will be providing for a lot of people. Consider looking at as a way to raise some funds.
    I look forward to hearing more.

  3. Nathan Koren says:

    First of all, that’s some really beautiful land. Second, this is a really great idea, and I’d like to see it move forward.

    Have you ever been to Arcosanti? I lived there for four years in my youth, and it had a profound effect on how I perceive and interact with the environment. Physically, it resembles in many ways the sort of design that you’re talking about building (although it falls down completely on the wheelchair accessibility front) – probably more than anywhere else in the world. In many ways it works quite well; in a few ways it doesn’t. If you can take the time, I’d recommend spending a few weeks or months there, to understand its design principles, and learn some of the subtler lessons about what works and what doesn’t. If not, I’d be happy to give you my own views on the subject.

    I’d also echo the Kickstarter idea, and would happily contribute financially if you went that route.

  4. ianology says:

    I have been to Arcosanti, but only for their one-day tour. But I’d like to hear more about your view of it. Maybe the kickstarter/ style of fundraising could be used for specific things, one at a time: construction of one thing, solar panels, solar oven, etc.

  5. Clay says:

    You’ve got my interest. Would have to know more about the climate and local weather conditions. Sounds good, though.

  6. Jessie says:

    Wow. Not many words right now, but wow. Are you going to build the buildings yourself?

  7. ianology says:

    To answer the last 2 questions: (1) the climate is dry, clear, and comfortable in the summer – 55 at night to 80 in the day. Rain is brief. (2) As far as buildings, that depends partly on who’s interested and where the money comes from. I want it to be durable buildings that pass inspection and have plumbing, etc, so I think there will be an experienced general contractor, but I like the physical work myself too.

  8. kevix says:

    if you create a Quaker retreat, it might be a way to get it built and then as a secondary benefit include Autistics.

  9. Veronica says:

    I think what you are doing and going to do is amazing! Let me know how I can help, maybe further down the line I can help with media, fundraising, stuff like that. Also my boyfriend and I own a construction company, so if you need help in that area let me know, plus we are friends with lots of architects.

  10. Jerry says:

    Congrats on getting the land and articulating a vision. What is the next step? Camp there this summer? Burning man like community on your land? How are the locals? Supports nearby?

    It’s a transportation and cost issue for me to get there at the moment, but wonder how would work there…
    Hope to visit someday

  11. ianology says:

    Jerry, Yes we are planning on some camping there in the summer. We still know so little about the surrounding area. A hacker shop sounds like a fun idea, and I don’t know how/if it would fit with this idea. Basically the next steps in my mind are to get to know the place better and convene other people who have an interest in contributing.. in order to figure out the next steps! – Ian

  12. This sounds great! My dream is to find enough acreage to build a self-contained community where individuals on the spectrum (and their families) can live, work and play; all self-governed like a city and have its own stores and medical facilities…10-20 years to reality unless I get a BIG supporter(s). Any way, I would like to help with planning and/or be on staff (couldn’t move till Feb. 2013), but this sounds something that is very much to my ideals until I get MY plans going. Who knows, maybe with this, mine might take a backseat. By the way, have you thought about used manufactured homes for staff and community facilities? They can be rigged for solar, VERY cheap and accommodating, yet withstand the elements of the area. Something to think about. I lived in one for 8 years. Also, I’m a master gardener (one of my savant skills), along with mechanically & architecturally (artistic/design) inclined. I’m also a great cook and businessperson, so long as it isn’t my OWN personal affairs. This looks like a beautiful area and you could also market this as an artist’s retreat to spectrumite and non individuals. Keep me posted.

  13. Thomas Owren says:

    I’m a neurotypical Norwegian master student of community work writing a master thesis on “autistic space” – the kind of physical and social conditions created at events like Autreat and Autscape. I have been searching the internet for descriptions of autistic space and how autistic space is created (using the search terms “autistic space”, “Autreat” and “Autscape”), and came across this post (

    My question: May I include your blog post in my data collection?

    In my thesis I am actively privileging autistic voices, and I am doing my outmost to write my thesis in a way that is respectful of autistic difference. One of my hypotheses is that the conditions created in autistic space can point to disabling barriers for autistic people in “NT” or “non-autistic space” (fluorescent lighting, noise, pressure to interact, perfume, and so forth). I therefore have a disability rights/social justice perspective, and I think you have some very important contributions in your visions for a retreat center.

    I aim to finish my thesis this fall (2012). It will be in English, and will be posted on my web site. If I may include your blog post in my data collection, I will be happy to notify you when my thesis is available!

    I need to know how I should refer to you if I should end up wanting to quote you directly. You may also remain anonymous if you wish. And you may at any time withdraw your contribution without giving any reason.

    My regards,
    Thomas Owren

  14. Joel Spector says:

    Hello, Ian, and thank you for articulating as much of your vision as you’ve been able to do so far.

    As an Aspie who’s had a twenty-year career as a project and program manager (I can “pass” well), it seems to me that *starting* what you want to get started can be treated as a project, but the thing you’re trying to create is an ongoing entity, and hence *not* a project. (One of the defining characteristics of a project is that it has a specific goal, and once the goal is achieved the project is over.)

    It seems to me more brainstorming is needed before we can hang some real meat on what that “ongoing entity” will be like. Are you available for phone conference?


    Joel Spector. Whose own phone is momentarily out of order, but will send you the number to the new one as soon as he receives it.

  15. ldfjgij says:

    Hello Ian,

    Are you still thinking about this plan, or not?
    I like it.

  16. ianology says:

    Yes but it is not happening in internet time – it will take a few years. People who want to contribute to this can contact me ( to get more detailed updates. The next steps for this year are county approval and road maintenance.

  17. Virginia Whitney says:

    I found your blog through your most recent post which was shared on an autism acceptance blog. This idea is so wonderful. I am 21 years old, so still pretty young, but I have been camping quite often. In my childhood, and then there was a huge gap. Then, in my last year of high school I went to a summer camp with my new church. (Under the UCC denomination) I felt real genuine love and acceptance. This was before I even knew I was autistic but was feeling a lot of shame at who I was because I couldn’t make friends like everyone else. One of the days, around campfire, I was feeling particularly insecure. I found it particularly difficult to get involved with my peers. I was going to cry and I knew. I asked a counselor “Can I talk to you?” and she was very kind to me and took me to the side and let me tell her what I was feeling. When I came back to campfire everyone was so nice. Everytime I go back I heal a little bit. (not my autism, but my past hurts) I connect with people on levels I never have before. I just had to share that! I think this is so amazing. I think its awesome that as an engineer you think how things could be done better, I often think like that.

  18. ianology says:

    Thanks for the nice comment! I had some experiences like that too, with quaker retreats and camping. Also I know what it is like to heal a little bit at a time by being in a supportive environment. I get that from Autreat now, but that’s only once a year.

    If you want to be part of the retreat center, like actually visit there or work on it over a summer, we should keep in touch. (Your email didn’t work, so you could try ilf at And anyone else reading this, also let me know by that email if you want to be added to the occasional info list in case you want to be a part of it.)

  19. Anonymous says:

    Here is an article on altitude sickness. Something to consider with regard to the viability of a retreat center where many people might be traveling from sea level or low elevation to 9200 ft.

  20. Dom says:

    I love the idea. I’m not on the autism spectrum, but I have neurological disabilities. I would love to be part of something like this and contribute by bringing my Urban Ranch & Farm Project to the effort. That project is online at:

  21. I am intrigued by your project. I would want to become involved, but my resources are too limited (I live several states away and do not have money or distance transportation.)

    I do hope that some day in the future I will be able to visit — although I am discouraged by the no RV rule since I have long since decided that the safest and most comfortable way for me to travel with all my health issues is a little trailer pulled behind a truck. It seems that might exclude me from being able to participate since my “lifeline” wouldn’t be allowed on the property nor, it seems, would I be allowed to sleep in it (where I could meet all my medical needs myself.) Traveling with a trailer is such an exciting idea to me because it would really extend my independence and range since I can’t travel otherwise because my needs don’t get met and I become quite ill.

    But even if I’m not able to come be a part of things, it makes me happy to know that what you are building exists and I really support that! Best wishes to you!

  22. starlys says:

    This older article is the basis for the project, which is ongoing and has its own web site:

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