Autistic teenager helps to create foundation to fund local nonprofits

by Dorothy Atkins, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

For most of his life, 16-year-old Joey Lowenstein barely had a voice, with autism limiting his speech to a few words and phrases.

In the last year, Lowenstein’s world has changed, thanks to a tool allowing him to point to letters on a board and spell out his thoughts and opinions into sentences.

Using this device, Lowenstein told his mother Roberta he wanted to help other people with autism enrich their lives. The comment inspired the family to create a foundation — the Joey Lowenstein Foundation — that has been raising money to benefit programs for those diagnosed with autism, like Carbondale-based Extreme Sports Camp (ESC) and Challenge Aspen.

Earlier this week, Lowenstein and his family made up a team that participated in the Vertical Blue challenge held by ESC on all four mountains. The event’s goal was to raise awareness for autism and money for ESC. It drew 66 participants, who collectively skied nearly 1.4 million vertical feet for the cause over the course of three days. Tuesday was World Autism Awareness Day and Aspen Skiing Co. lit the Little Nell run blue on Aspen Mountain to mark the occasion.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that Lowenstein was even capable of voicing his desire to get involved with events like Vertical Blue. Since he was a child, Lowenstein’s speech has been limited to only a few words or phrases and much of his personality has remained hidden due to his disability.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Joey Lowenstein, who is autistic, uses a uses a letter board to communicate with the help of teacher Matthew Kennedy during an interview at the Aspen Square on Monday morning.

About two years ago, Roberta Lowenstein heard of a method of communicating where people with autism point to letters on a plastic board and spell out sentences in a process called the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM). She decided to try the method with her son, and with the help of local teacher Matthew Kennedy, Joey Lowenstein can now respond to questions and express his opinions.

“Mostly it really started to happen for me a year ago when I met Matthew,” Lowenstein said using the letter board. “The RPM method has totally changed my ability to communicate and show people how I’m smart too.”

The letter board changed the way Roberta Lowenstein understands her son, she said. She never really realized that Lowenstein could spell more than simple words like “mom” or “cow” and she realized he has a great sense of humor, she said. Kennedy agreed that using the letter board has opened up a whole new life for Lowenstein.

“It gives him an opinion,” Kennedy said. “It gives him a voice and that’s a big part of life. It gives him the ability to make choices.”

Lowenstein wants to help other children with autism see that their lives could be as well rounded as his, he said.

The Lowenstein family lived in Aspen for five years before moving to New York three years ago. While in the area, Lowenstein was active with local nonprofits like ESC and Challenge Aspen. He also learned how to snowboard and has since developed his skills to the point that he rides black diamond runs regularly.

Lowenstein loves snowboarding because it helps him feel normal, he said adding that he likes to go really fast. The foundation’s goal is to try to help other autistic people have the same kinds of experiences, Roberta Lowenstein said.