Tonie Nikoson, age 34, is described as unique, lovely and enjoys sunshine, music, art, and her family, but without the caring individuals who have come into her life over the years, the description could be much different. Tonie has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Because of this, Tonie has had challenges responding and interacting with individuals and situations around her. For Tonie, one of these individuals is Pam Stockton, her guardian, who has worked with her since age 5. Pam met Tonie while working at the program for special needs children at St. John’s. In those early years Tonie’s challenges with processing information and understanding the world around her caused Tonie to respond with behaviors that were often difficult for teachers and care-givers to handle. But, a year after meeting Tonie, Tonie went to live with Stockton and her family. The Stockton family is Tonie’s family and over the years they have provided the love and stability Tonie needed to grow and learn.

Tonie’s story doesn’t end there. After she completed school and became an adult, she began attending the LIFESPAN Creative Campus in Waynesville. The center specializes in services for individuals with Autism. At the center Tonie can participate in the arts, outdoor activities, cooking, horticulture and other adult-focused activities. Recently two staff attended the UNC TEACCH training through a grant from the Evergreen Foundation. This 5-day training equips staff to work more effectively with both the individuals with Autism and their families.

According to Sulina George, LIFESPAN director of program services, “this training provided the staff with many Aha moments. Staff gained skills that will help individuals in our programs communicate their needs and it will enable us to have a better impact in our community.”

Michael Dodson, one of the two staff attending confirmed that it was definitely true for him. During the training, participants had the opportunity to work directly with parents who have children with Autism. From talking with the parents he learned that the best approach was to keep things simple. Parents shared that they were all very busy and often stressed and it is best to give them one thing to try at a time. Dodson is using this approach in classes he teaches to assist parents at the LIFESPAN Creative Campus. Using the same approaches at the center and at home adds consistency and predictability to the lives of the LIFESPAN participants.

LIFESPAN was also awarded Evergreen Foundation funding to enhance their multi-sensory room. The room incorporates lights, colors, sounds, smells and movement that can be calming or also stimulate the sensory processing for individuals with Autism or other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

“Tonie likes the bubble machine with the changing colors,” commented Stockton. “She likes the activities and staff at the LIFESPAN creative campus and really enjoys coming.”

In addition to the campus in Haywood County, LIFESPAN also has a creative campus in Cherokee County where similar services and supports are provided. To learn more about programs available through LIFESPAN visit their website at To learn more about the Evergreen Foundation and grants to support services in Western North Carolina go to