In Montana, a Retreat for Families Affected by Autism

In a mountainous setting near Bozeman, non-profit Erik's Ranch wants to create a home away from home for families with autistic members.

In 2008, Kathryn Nordberg was disappointed in the lack of resources for her young son, Erik, who had autism. She wanted somewhere that could help him learn life skills in a safe and empowering environment, so she built a team of experts in fields from psychology to architecture to create it.

Erik's Ranch & Retreats was the brainchild of that team and will celebrate grand openings in two locations this month, one in Edina, Minn., and another near Bozeman, Mont., in the Yellowstone River’s Paradise Valley. Each destination caters to moderate- to high-functioning young adults with autism, offering live-work residencies.

The autistic adults will play a part in the daily operations. Everyone has a job, from sous chef to concierge. Too often, Nordberg says, “Young adults with autism are passed over for jobs they are infinitely skilled to do [simply] because of communication and social difficulties.” She hopes Erik’s Ranch will combat that stigma of employing autistic adults.

Besides creating a residential environment, Nordberg also envisions the ranches as a travel destination and as a retreat for families with autistic members—a place where they can relax in an environment that understands their special needs. To that end, her team has been busy putting the finishing touches on guesthouses at the Montana ranch.

Resting on 250 acres near Gallatin National Forest, the Paradise Valley ranch location offers views to the Absaroka Mountains. The proximity to Gallatin and Yellowstone puts outdoor adventures at hand, including fly fishing, river rafting, rock climbing and skiing—plus the possibility to arrange private hiking and hunting trips.

Paradise Valley guesthouse at Erik's Ranch & Retreat
The first guesthouse is being built by a local resident and his autistic son. It is scheduled to open in May.

For $200, visiting families can stay in an 820-square-foot, two-bedroom guesthouse that sleeps up to six people. Nordberg says reservations will be accepted starting in spring 2014 and that discounted rates and packages will be available to families affected by autism who cannot otherwise afford such a vacation.

It’s not the first venture into the travel space for the team at Erik’s: The group already has operated Erik’s Minnesota Adventures in the Twin Cities area. That program places autistic adults in a tour-guide role; they lead groups of volunteers on tours that cover interest areas ranging from arts to sports and history.

“The learning curve for changing the way society views individuals with autism … is a huge undertaking,” Nordberg writes, “but it’s a change that must be made.”

Get there:

Erik’s Ranch & Retreats,, near Bozeman, Mont.

(All Photos Courtesy Erik's Ranch & Retreats)