The Growth and Expansion of Hidden Wings

A Santa Ynez Valley-based group dedicated to helping young people with autism hopes to create a college geared specially for those students.

The nonprofit “Hidden Wings,” which was formed more than a year ago by the Rev. James Billington and his wife, Dr. Julia Billington, is holding three workshops this month and in April for those interested in forming a college for students with autism, Asperger’s Disorder and related syndromes.

The first retreat focused on the potential construction of the college will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the San Lorenzo Seminary, 802 Sky Dr., in Santa Ynez. The follow-up will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. March 21 at the seminary. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 24, Hidden Wings will host a day of “exploration, creativity and fun” at Camp Whittier in Santa Ynez for parents, students and volunteers. It will include art sessions and a ropes course.

“By then, our goal is to have a blueprint of a school,” Rev. Billington said. “Three sessions, very intense, moving from brainstorm to blueprint.”

The Billingtons formed Hidden Wings with the goal of assisting young people diagnosed as having autism or similar disorders receive higher education and career or vocational training. Two of their four sons have been diagnosed as being within the “autism spectrum.”

“The overall response has been that youth on the autistic spectrum — from the lowest functioning to the savants — need a place after high school where they can grow and flourish without the pressure, the teasing, the incapability of the public school system,” said Rev. Billington, who dubbed the proposed school “First Flight College.”

Though Hidden Wings has been teaching a handful of students in the past year, Rev. Billington said he has had little luck in placing the young people into local jobs. The college concept is meant to help provide another path for those students, Rev. Billington said.

“No college has been designed uniquely for those on the autistic spectrum,” he said. “We are in virgin territory. And we have decided that the main architects would be the parents of autistic youth and those who are uniquely gifted at mentoring these youth.”

The Billingtons have been in contact with Dr. Darold Treffert, clinical professor psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and a known authority on Savant Syndrome. He has provided much guidance, the couple said.

“‘Hidden Wings” is an apt title for a desperately needed, timely project,” Dr. Treffert said in a statement. “School and program availability for K-12 students with autism ends abruptly with high school graduation and adulthood. Into this regrettable vacuum comes a program that provides continued opportunity for experiencing greater self-worth, increased socialization and more independence. To my knowledge there is no college in this country or elsewhere that is designed uniquely for those on the autistic spectrum. It would be an inspiration.”

“What is at stake are hundreds then thousands of kids who will simply drop off the map once secondary school is over,” said the Rev. Billington. “It is a looming tragedy that we see, in our stable of youth, to be absolutely heartbreaking.”

For more information or reservations to the sessions, call Rev. Billington at 705-3918 or e-mail