Lakey Gap Autism Programs grows skills through gardening

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
James George throws a shovel of soil onto a garden at Christmount with the help of Carl Young, in back.


Every Thursday for about a year and a half, a dozen or so young men with autism arrive at Christmount to garden, have lunch and continue their work on social and communication skills.

Their time at the Christian retreat is part of Lakey Gap Autism Programs, a nonreligious service of Christmount and an outgrowth of the summer camp, Camp Lakey Gap, that Christmount has hosted for years for people who fall along the autism spectrum.

Anne McGuire helps John Paul "JP" Golvach (in hat) and James George (right) get their work underway, assisted by Trent Harris (in light blue).

Anne McGuire retired from the UNC TEACCH Autism Program, where she worked for 28 years and did the kind of curriculum development that she’s doing for Lakey Gap Autism Programs. McGuire, community outreach and development director, plans to broaden the program’s vocational training to include hospitality services such as grounds maintenance and food services.

Her work with Lakey Gap Autism Programs, which Christmount adopted in 2008, is “my retirement job that pays me and makes me happy,” she said while the men worked in the garden at Christmount on that Thursday in May. She was joking when she said it, but she takes her work seriously. Eighty-six percent of people who fall along the autism spectrum in the U.S. are unemployed, according to a 2017 Autism Institute report. That’s  not because they lack intelligence but because they often don’t know how to ask for help, McGuire said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 59 eight-year-old children had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in 2014. Boys are four more times likely to be diagnosed with it than girls. It’s more prevalent among white than minority children, the CDC reports.  

“A lot of people with autism can’t work 40 hours a week, just because of the social or communication demands,” McGuire said. “But they can work 20 hours. They can work 30. They can get (health) benefits.”

Trent Harris, at right, helps James George make tomato cages in the kitchen garden at Christmount Christian Assembly.

 The kitchen gardening program is part of the vocational training that McGuire is phasing into Lackey Gap Autism Programs, which also operates two social groups for children and adults with autism and is adding a parents’ support group (to get in touch, contact McGuire at 669-8977 or The men who garden at Christmount every week help grow the greens, herbs and vegetables the retreat’s kitchen uses to feed its visitors and campers. McGuire is training the men to help support themselves by learning how to grow potatoes, peppers, lettuce and herbs.

All but one of the gardeners, between 19-23 years old, are residents of Beacon Transitions, a private program in Hendersonville for young adults with autism, Aspergers or learning disabilities. There and with McGuire, the men work on social, behavioral, communications and self-help skills. The men have been coming to Christmount for as long as Lakey Gap Autism Programs has existed - 1.5 years.

McGuire loves these guys. And the young men know it. Standing in the shade and out of the sun – and not particularly enthused with the day’s work - Caleb put his head on McGuire’s shoulder. She gave him a warm smile, and Caleb seemed reassured. Asked if he liked gardening, he said “not really.”

“It’s just dirty,” he said. McGuire laughed.

Carl, another program participant, bounded up. “I personally love it,” he said. His parents have a garden, and he waters it “in the wee hours of the morning,” he said. “I’ve developed a little green thumb, which obviously helps here.”

McGuire gave the men explicit instructions, knowing that they needed them. She sent Gem – “like a gem of a person,” she said -  off to plant flower seeds in a garden that she had to give him directions to, even though he’d been there before.

“I don’t say ‘we’re going to move mulch today,’” she said to a visitor. “I say ‘you’re going to do six shovels, you’re going to do six shovels,’” she said, pointing to an imaginary person, “’and I’m going to do six shovels.’”

Zach sprayed water on the herb garden that McGuire had created by enriching the existing red clay with amendments. At her prompting, Zach talked about the “potato towers” they’d built out of straw and soil. Sitting nearby, James made tomato cages with Trent Harris, a Beacon Transitions employee who drives the men to the garden each week.

McGuire put Caleb to weeding a flower bed. He doesn’t like to bend over and didn’t like the ants he found in the bed. Straightening up and brushing his hands on his shirt, he said he needed to wash up.

“I’ll help you, buddy,” Zach said told him, reaching in to pull weeds. That’s the kind of cooperation and empathy that warms McGuire’s heart. “That’s what we love to see,” she said in a soft voice.

Melvin Archie, who volunteered to help the guys that day while his wife attended a workshop at Christmount, raked leaves out of a vegetable bed while a couple of the gardeners cracked jokes. “Every now and then the guys get kind of silly,” the Columbia, South Carolina resident said, chuckling.

 McGuire turned to Carl. “What did you tell me about the manure?” she asked him.

“That it stinks,” Carl said.

“Why?” she said.

“Because it was aged,” he said.

“Aged like Carl,” James said. McGuire laughed.

Lackey Gap Autism Programs has received funding and support from the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Valley Endowment Fund, The Glass Foundation in Asheville and Walmart and local businesses such as Tyson Furniture, Ace Hardware, Wright’s Carpet and Painters Greenhouse.