Nestled high in New Hampshire’s White Mountains sits Crotched Mountain School, a private, special education residential and day school for children with disabilities. Part of the extensive Crotched Mountain Foundation that also includes a hospital, outpatient clinic, specialty hospital for brain injury patients and outpatient and residential services for adults with disabilities, Crotched Mountain is located on 1,400 acres of beautiful countryside with a swimming pool, athletic center and even New Hampshire’s first wheelchair accessible tree house.
A large part of the attraction for parents to the school, which accepts 128 students from ages six through 21, is the fact that it offers a fully accredited K-12 curriculum plus vocational and life training, a medical team on staff and an array of activities. These “leisure activities,” help to ensure that kids get to be kids with everything from swimming to performing arts, computer time, hiking trails and music.
New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke to the school’s director of psychology, Thomas F. Frye, Ph.D., about his work with the school and his interesting side gig. A clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, Frye has run a private practice and also plays and sings in a classic rock cover band performing for audiences throughout the region.
Q: Tell us about the leisure activities and how it differs from recreational therapy?
A: Recreational therapy is a clinical program. We have recreational therapists who run the adaptive skiing, the adaptive kayaking program, dance therapy…more structured kinds of programs.
With leisure activities, it’s less structured. We have drumming circle every week, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a bowling alley and visiting artists who come in once a month. We bought some cameras and both students and adults do photography. There are hiking trails, including the largest accessible trail in the U.S. in a mountainside environment – 2.5 miles in length. We have a full-sized gym and a ball field for soccer and softball. The media center is equipped with state of art technology, iPads, etc. – all the stuff that is beyond me.
We have a full-time music and band teacher who does performing arts and a play every six months. The kids get to make the dramatic kinds of props and outfits. It’s an amazing thing.
The other thing I like to say about leisure activities is that if we don’t keep our students busy, they will keep us busy. So downtime is kind of a nemesis.
Q: What types of disabilities do you work with?
A: We see an amazing array of neurological problems, physical problems, multiple handicaps, developmental disabilities. We have a large population of children with autism and more than 50 percent of the students have significant behavioral issues coupled with psychiatric conditions.
Q: Are there many schools like this one?
A: There are schools but not a lot. It’s very comprehensive in terms of the range of clinical services we offer, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language, as well as the recreational therapy and the psychology.
Q: You have been with Crotched Mountain for the past four years, but you had also been with them in the late 80s and early 90s. What drew you back?
A: I love the place and the challenges they presented were exactly what I wanted to do.
I liked the diversity and the outpatient clinic where I don’t have to worry about the billing. Billing becomes more of a chore and it spoils private practice as far as I am concerned.
We do deal with intense children with self injurious and physically aggressive behavior. And because it costs to place a child here and school districts are hurting for money, we will get the more intense kinds of children because the schools will hold on to them longer and longer.
But even though there is some danger in coming to work every day, more often than not, it’s a joy and inspiring to see children learn to do things that no one thought they would ever do. We had a boy who learned to swim and his parents never thought they could take him out to the ocean to swim. You can’t feel sorry for yourself when you see a kid in a wheelchair. It
really is motivating in that regard.
Q: You are a musician as well. Tell us about that.
A: I grew up with a musical mother and grandfather and my dad was into marching band music. I started on the trombone but then the Beatles came along and so I asked for a guitar at 15. We had a band going my sophomore year playing at the local YMCA. I never wanted to be a full-time musician, but it has always been a part of my life.
Twelve years ago, I was invited to audition with an existing band as rhythm guitarist. We tried the nightclub scene and not only do they not pay well, but it is just not fun. Instead, we specialize in things like outdoor restaurants, campgrounds, family events. We are playing the Fryeburg Fair in October and [played] the Apple Festival in Cornish, Maine. We’ve had children who were toddlers up to people in their 80s singing and dancing. It’s fun. The joke is we don’t get paid to play, we get paid to schlep equipment, that’s the hardest part.
Q: How does your career as a musician influence your work?
A: Being a musician, I would do music therapy in a classroom. A big part of our theoretical model, gentle teaching, is that you have to be in a child’s life in all environments. You need to go to the classroom, spend time there and get to know them. When we do the greeting for the morning meeting, we sing to them, “Hello, how are you? Tell me your name. Hello,
how are you? Tell me your news.”
Q: Your work seems very satisfying.
A: I was contacted about a young man who graduated at 21 by the parents telling us that this student had gone into the bank and cashed his first paycheck. This was a boy who was rather dangerous and he is now working, cashed his first check and went down the street to get his first haircut at a barber shop. They were just so thrilled that his transition into the community was so smooth and that he continued to benefit from the program that we had offered.
A friend who is also a psychologist told me that the latest development in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is called gratitude therapy. We have started to work on transferring these principles to our students’ level but then I come up against the issue that these kids are so full of life. They don’t need to be reminded that they have a lot to be grateful for. You can really learn from your clients.
When I first worked here in the brain injury unit, I had a woman whose husband had a head injury in Vietnam and her son got in a car with a drunk driver and ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. She took care of both of them for over 10 years on her own and she looked at me and said, “You psychologists don’t know anything.”
I said, “You’re right. So, teach me.”
I am here to learn from my clients because they are the ones who can teach me the most.
By Catherine Robertson Souter