Autism center uses aquaponics for interactive learning

Autism center uses aquaponics for interactive learning

Autism center uses aquaponics for interactive learning
September 05
13:27 2017

At Bright Mosaic, nature lives outside and inside.

Out in the yard, a garden flowing with leafy greens and trellised flowers are abundant. Okra, tomatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes are present abound. Inside, among a gaggle of kids, is an apartment of microgreens living under a magenta LED light. A begrudging tilapia named Spike swims nearby in his tank.

Bright Mosaic, run by Denton resident Christopher Brown, is an autism therapy center that focuses on an unique approach to learning. The center focuses on the common ABA therapy while also incorporating practices of tending to a backyard garden, planting microgreens and preparing food into their curriculum. The garden utilizes the aquaponics method, a system that uses fish waste to supplement the plants outside. In turn, the plants purify the fish’s water in a sustainable cycle.

“It seemed like more of an interesting way to grow food,” Brown said. “We have a school now where the kids are very interested and the garden is pretty wild. It’s like a little jungle, and the kids really enjoy running through it.”

Before starting Bright Mosaic in 2014, Brown went through countless trials and errors to find the right prototype for the center. With it, the garden could act as a sensory landscapes for the kids while engaging them with different experiences.

“The more we can get them involved in the process of where food comes from, the better,” Brown said. “The hope is that knowing the processes would help them get more interested in trying new things.”

The entire system is named Greenfinity Farms and is a supplement to Bright Mosaic. It stays eco-friendly by conserving water while also helping kids feel more comfortable with similar senses when they encounter them in the real world.

“They have that ability to connect with nature and with anybody, that helps,” therapist Trista Estill said. “So them being able to go out there, play with the leaves and smell everything [is] just going to bring more senses out of them and bring more and more interaction.”

Bright Mosaic currently has eight kids, ranging from 3 to 11 years old, along with eight therapists for a 1:1 ratio. It’s housed in a two-story Victorian house on the corner of Locust Street and University Drive.

Despite its success now, the road to Bright Mosaic has been an unexpected one for Brown. After graduating UNT with a degree in psychology and philosophy, Brown found himself working an undemanding job at CVS.

Spike the tilapia hangs out in his tank that is connected to several micro green trays and a large garden. He provides the only means of fertilizer through a hybrid aquaponics system designed by Brown. Kady Shirley

His career path began to change when his coworker told him about an autism center that was offering higher pay. What he stumbled upon was a passion for teaching and helping children with autism. Soon enough, the center promoted him to construction project manager, allowing Brown to tour the country flipping old houses into new autism centers.

“My job was going into new properties [and] just staying there while renovating and creating new centers,” Brown said. “That was a key part that lent itself to starting my own [center].”

Brown said the trigger to start Bright Mosaic was from the end of his previous company.

“I probably would have worked there forever if I hadn’t found out about some shady operations, which ended up getting [them] shut down,” Brown said. “I whistle blew on them and got fired, so that’s what motivated me to start my own center.”

This started years of developing an autism center that fit Brown’s vision. His background with therapy and constructing new buildings proved to be assets for Bright Mosaic.

“I knew that here, actual ethical principles would be practiced,” Estill said. “I knew that we were going to be doing real ABA that was going to be effective, and [now] our kids actually progress really well and very quickly.”

Bright Mosaic has offered their kids a space that is accepting and open, which is very reassuring to parents.

For mother Erin Gutierrez, the center helped her find a right path for her son Adrian. After learning her husband’s insurance didn’t cover ABA therapy, which is common, Gutierrez said she desperately searched for a school that could help.

“I called Bright Mosaic in tears, right after learning that my husband’s employer insurance doesn’t cover ABA,” Gutierrez said. “I was desperate to find a place that would work with us and be a good fit for Adrian. Christopher answered the phone and talked me down from the ledge [and] immediately helped me set up a game plan and a time to meet. The rest is history.”

With its approaches to teaching, Gutierrez said she feels Bright Mosaic is like a home for her child.

“Although [it’s] still considered a ‘clinical model’ of ABA, there is nothing clinical about Bright Mosaic,”  Gutierrez said. “It’s set in a home with a warm and inviting atmosphere. Their natural approach to health and nutrition really appeals to the tree-hugging hippie in me.”

Brown hopes to expand to another location in the future, with a full farm and more space for the kids to explore. Although the road here has been surprising, Brown is confident in the seasons to come.

Featured Image: A garden is set up in a fenced in area of the Bright Mosaic grounds. It is fertilized only through the hybrid aquaponics system that is powered by Spike the fish. Kady Shirley

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Amy Roh

Amy Roh

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