Big fish story

It’s a catch: Professional fishing guide Alex Bell, left, helps Austin Coburn, 14, pull a brook trout out of Cullowhee Creek, while WCU recreational therapy student Megan Hunt, center, assists. photo by Ashley Evans

On a clear, cool mid-November afternoon, a small-scale fishing derby was under way along Cullowhee Creek on the Western Carolina University campus.

Working with WCU recreational-therapy students Shawn Chapman and Megan Hunt, three boys took turns fly-fishing for trout in the creek’s quick, shallow waters as moms, dads, siblings and friends offered encouragement from the grassy banks.

“Oh, I hope they catch one,” fretted Dana Frady, whose son Dillon, 12, is a sixth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School.

“That one’s going to get bit there: Get ready,” urged Alex Bell, a professional fishing guide from Sylva who offered humor and encouragement with every cast. The fish that wriggled free he termed LDRs: “long-distance releases.”

Many boys welcome a chance to fish, but for these three — Austin Coburn, 14, an eighth-grader at the School of Alternatives; Isaac Ralston, 10, a fourth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School; and Frady — the opportunity was especially sweet. All three boys are on the autism spectrum, and recreational activities specifically adapted to their abilities are few. Austin, the son of Jane and Andy Coburn, was so excited he’d had trouble concentrating at school that day.

Autism affects the normal development of the brain in regard to social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function, according to the National Autism Association. Individuals with autism can show marked differences — thus, they’re “on the autism spectrum” — but they typically have difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and leisure activities. The disorder affects one in 150 people in the U.S. and is diagnosed four times more often in boys than in girls, the association reports.

Chapman and Hunt organized the fly-fishing event as a project for a methods class taught by Jennifer Hinton, an associate professor of recreational therapy at Western. Bell, a retired Smoky Mountain High School principal who owns AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, served as Chapman and Hunt’s coach on the project, working with them throughout the semester. Through the nonprofit Adaptive Fly Fishing Institute, Bell teaches the techniques and also trains instructors. Although there’s limited research on therapeutic fly-fishing, says Hinton, the WCU students theorized that it would benefit children on the autism spectrum physically, psychologically and socially.

The fly-fishing event was adapted to the children’s abilities. When teaching them to cast, for example, the instructors asked the kids to aim for Hula-Hoops on the ground rather than envisioning numbers on an imaginary clock face. “It was amazing the difference once we put down a visual cue: It improved their focus so much,” notes Bell. Either Chapman or Hunt stood with each boy as he fished, helping him with the casting motion.

Access for all

In honor of the event, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission staff stocked that section of Cullowhee Creek with about 40 brook trout from the Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery in Pisgah Forest. “We’re here to provide angling opportunities for various people, and we were proud to step up and make that happen,” Fish Production Supervisor David Deaton explains. The agency’s primary goal, he notes, is making hunting, fishing, boating and other wildlife-related activities accessible to all state residents. On this day, each child caught at least one fish, and both the boys and their families were thrilled.

Isaac Ralston was still talking about it a week later, his mother reports. “He’s looked forward to fly-fishing since we moved here,” notes Kathy Ralston, who relocated to Jackson County from Kansas City, Mo., with her husband and their four children in August of 2010. Isaac, their oldest child, has always participated in group activities such as county-league soccer. And though it’s been uncomfortable (emotionally and physically) for her son at times, Ralston firmly believes it’s helped him socially. But participation has gotten more difficult as Isaac has grown older and the physical and emotional disparities between him and his peers have become more pronounced. “It really takes the right coach to reach out and help them become involved,” she explains. Ralston and other parents say they’d like to see more recreational opportunities for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Isaac regularly participates in two such activities on the WCU campus. One of them, a social-skills group for adolescents, is a collaborative effort involving speech-language pathology and recreational-therapy faculty and students. Started by clinical faculty member Julie Ogletree, the free program, which meets weekly on campus, typically attracts about six children ages 9 to 15. Hinton, who helps run the group, envisions it moving to a clinical space in the new Health and Human Sciences Building next fall.

The other program, a startup, is run by Dragonfly Forest, a nonprofit that gives kids with autism and other medical needs a chance to have fun and simply be children in a safe, caring environment. Structured in small groups to help them “access the fun,” the weekly Dragonfly program meets on campus and has about five participants ages 8 to 13 (children ages 7 to 17 are welcome). Seven WCU students in psychology, recreational therapy and education staff the program, serving as administrators and planning activities such as scavenger hunts and kickball.

There’s a fee to participate, but scholarships are available, and no child has ever been turned away, notes program director Sylvia van Meerten. Although Dragonfly Forest is based in Pennsylvania, van Meerten, who has a decade of experience in the autism field, lives in Asheville and has also launched programs at UNCA and Appalachian State. Two six-week sessions are planned for this spring, and she expects attendance to grow.

“It’s so fun to do,” says van Meerten, who believes such activities enhance the quality of life for children on the autism spectrum. “A lot of the parents say it’s such a pleasure for them to drop off their children at a place where they want to go.”

— Former Xpress reporter Jill Ingram is a writer and editor in the WCU Office of Publications.

To learn more about WCU’s recreational-therapy program, contact Jennifer Hinton at 828-227-2715 or For more on Dragonfly Forest, contact Sylvia van Meerten at 828-458-0313 or

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