A welcome space: At the Fields Center in Northampton, neurodiverse individuals have a home

  • Jennifer Bogin, the founder and executive director of the Fields Center in Northampton, works with Greg Richane, to her right, and his son at the center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jennifer Bogin, the founder and executive director of the Fields Center in Northampton, works with Greg Richane, right, and his son at the center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jennifer Bogin, the founder and executive director of the Fields Center in Northampton, works with Greg Richane’s son at the center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michelle Rainbow Merola leads a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing group with left, Maddie Doby, 12, and Reiter, 10, at the Fields Center. “I am not a spontaneous person but my D&D character is, so now I don’t have to feel like I am missing out in my real life,” explained Merola about why she loves D&D. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michelle Rainbow Merola leads a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing group at the Fields Center in Northampton. Here, she talks with Reiter, 10, about the group and possible characters they could be. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michelle Rainbow Merola leads a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing group at the Fields Center in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Michelle Rainbow Merola leads a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing group with left, Maddie Doby, 12, and Reiter, 10, at the center. “I am not a spontaneous person but my D&D character is, so now I don’t have to feel like I am missing out in my real life,” explained Merola about why she loves D&D. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jennifer Bogin, the founder and executive director of the Fields Center in Northampton, works with Greg Richane’s son at the center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jennifer Bogin, the founder and executive director of the Fields Center in Northampton, works with Greg Richane’s son at the center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/11/2022 4:24:24 PM
Modified: 5/11/2022 4:22:46 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Greg and Amy Richane learned from their pediatrician that their 3-year-old son was autistic, they felt that while the diagnosis itself made sense, it lacked nuance.

The Easthampton family described the experience surrounding the initial diagnosis as pretty negative with much of the overview highlighting universal challenges.

“It was pretty clinical and medical … dealing with what’s ‘wrong with him’ and talking about his ‘problem behavior,’ but my kid is not a problem,” said Greg Richane.

As the Richanes began to orient themselves on their new journey, they reached out to Jennifer Bogin of the Fields Center for Positive Behavior Support.

Located at 881 North King St. in Northampton, the autism support center offers a space for neurodiverse individuals and their families through social connection groups, speech therapy and occupational therapy as well as parent and professional development training for schools, and agencies who serve individuals on the autism spectrum.

Bogin’s approach to their son’s diagnosis was more of a family-level approach to his individual needs, said Greg.

“We were still figuring out how all the pieces fit together, but Jennifer helped us navigate around the generic outlook and helped tailor services that draw on his strengths and the things he loves,” he said. “It was about helping him thrive.”

The center first opened in September of 2019 at Roundhouse Plaza in Northampton, but moved to its current North King Street location in October of 2021.

With the help of her wife Toni Bator, who is the program director for the Life Guide Coaching Program and provides per diem coaching services, as well as 16 registered behavior technicians, two speech-language pathologists, two licensed mental health counselors, an occupational therapist and two board certified behavior analysts, Bogin said programs are tailored to the needs of each individual.

Before services begin, Bogin performs an intake consultation that she says helps meet families where they are on their journey with autism and connects them to services.

“Too often, parents run into what I call the ‘diagnose and adios’ phenomenon. Parents get told: ‘OK, your kids autistic … Bye.’ They end up getting left with more questions than answers,” she said. “I feel like I offer a really good neutral, but clearly informed opinion or professional advice on what to do next.”

The center is a product of more than two decades worth of work supporting individuals on the autism spectrum, their families and their treatment providers, according to Bogin.

The center was named after her uncle, Frederick Douglas “Rick” Fields, who provided much inspiration to her. Fields, who was a journalist, poet and expert on the history of Buddhism and development in the U.S., died of lung cancer in 1999.

As the child of a pediatrician and an educator/disability advocate, Bogin describes herself as fortunate to have grown up in a family that valued inclusion and diversity.

After completing a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis from Boston-based Simmons College and moving to western Massachusetts, Bogin became a board certified behavior analyst and went into private practice working with children, adults, families, agencies and schools throughout the state as an autism and behavior specialist. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in behavioral studies from Harrison, New York-based Manhattanville College.

Now the conservator for her adult sibling with autism and schizophrenia, she said establishing the Fields Center to serve the broader autism community is part of her life’s devotion to this calling.

“I feel like this has been my spiritual path all along and this is like the culmination of it,” said Bogin. “I’ve literally been dreaming of this for years: a place where it doesn’t matter when your diagnosis is. It doesn’t matter what your behavior is. It doesn’t matter how you dress. You’re welcome.”

A friendly, safe space

The Fields Center is arranged in a way that’s welcoming to all ages, according to Bogin. In the main room, there are individual tables set up to accommodate private consultations as well as training or professional development. There are also more open tables for game nights and Lego sessions. The center also has a sensory room that is equipped with a swing, a climbing wall, fiber optics and crash pads, which are designed to provide a sense of calm and comfort and can be utilized for occupational therapy.

Prior to the Fields Center, the North King Street building housed fabric store Valley Fabrics. Before that, the space was home to Pittsburgh Paints.

The center provides specialized programming geared toward neurodiverse adults, parents and kids and teens. Neurodiverse refers to differences or variation in the human brain involving: social, learning, attention, mood and other mental or behavioral functions in a positive and affirming light, said Bogin.

Group programs are available for between $20 and $50 per week. The center is currently working to achieve a nonprofit status.
One group program that has become an ongoing event because of its demand and popularity at the center is the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Registered Behavior Technician Michelle “Rainbow” Merola runs sessions for neurodiverse adults on Tuesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and for kids and teenagers 10 years old and up on Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m. There is also a “quieter, creative and clever” session for kids and teenagers 10 years old and up on Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. All gaming supplies are provided.

“You can come here and be yourself, but also be a monk that kills bears with their fingers,” said Merola, laughing. “I love having this opportunity to work with kids, it’s my favorite when they don’t think you’re teaching them things while they’re being open to an imaginative moment.”

One program that recently kicked off is the sensory-social group geared at neurodiverse children 5 years old and younger. The sessions are held on Saturdays from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. and are co-facilitated by a speech therapist and an occupational therapist.

“This group came about because people have been coming to me and saying that their young children didn’t have a place where they could explore their environment without the parents feeling judged about their child’s behavior,” said Bogin. “I just feel like the community and the need in the community is developing the space, and it’s working, which is amazing.”

For more information about the Field Center’s services or programming, visit fieldscenter.org or call 413-219-4411.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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