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

Santa Barbara News Press

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The Centers for Disease Control terms autism an “epidemic.” A top medical expert at the National Institute of Mental Health calls autism the fastest growing disability in the nation.

Those declarations are particularly telling for the Rev. James Billington and his wife, Julia Billington, M.D., who have two young sons termed as having “special needs,” with some element of autistic-like behavior.

The Billingtons, who live in Santa Ynez and are both graduates of Harvard University, began to realize as they studied autism that very little exists for children along the “autism spectrum disorder,” once they reach young adulthood.

Thus came the idea for “Hidden Wings,” a labor of love and an expansive concept they have melded into a newly designated non-profit organization. Hidden Wings is designed to assist young people on the autistic spectrum with higher education and career or vocational training.
The name of the organization has a number of origins, but Rev. Billington likes to say Hidden Wings will help with “Unfurling the gifts of children with autism.”

From 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, March 27, the Billingtons will sponsor “Bridges From School to Society,” a town hall meeting at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building, in the Legion Wing. Laurie Tullis, the principal of Refugio High School, will be a guest speaker. Ms. Tullis spent 10 years as a special  education teacher in Kern County and specialized in full-inclusion classrooms.

“The more we have talked around the community about this, the more people with a Down Syndrome child say they have the same problem, or people who have any number of neurological issues, say the same thing.” said Rev. Billington, whose father is the Librarian of Congress. “They haven’t really found an answer.”

The Billingtons, who previously lived in San Mateo, said they’d like Hidden Wings to be a prototype.

“Some people who have disabilities or a uniqueness find it is even more difficult to find employment,” explained Rev. Billington, an Episcopal minister. “For people with neurological disorders, retardation or Down Syndrome, we want to offer the hope and sunlight. Instead of looking at it as a lodestone, this is a real upward opportunity that we haven’t realized before.”

The Billingtons are particularly motivated by the statistics on autism- some say 1 in 150 births – and by a statement from the California Legislative Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism report from 2007. The report concluded the following: “If the state does nothing, these populations will likely repeat the tragic history of the seriously mentally ill after deinstitutionalizing in California. erosions with Autistic Spectrum Disorder will be ‘served’ by a public response one way or another – humane policies and informed programs, or by poverty, homelessness and a dehumanizing criminal justice system.”

What they hope to create with Hidden Wings is a way for local business people to interact with the yon people and perhaps mentor and introduce them into the workplace. That, the couple says, would create a path to careers or independent lives, rather than having young adults forced into dependence on parents or society.

The Billingtons and their supporters say Hidden Wings would involve consultants working with teachers and parents to design a specific plan for that transition – whether it be from high school to work, higher education or vocational training. the consultants would help the students as they began training in local businesses, non-profits, or even government agencies, Rev. Billington said.

“We’re helping to make a future for boys like ours, a future that involves growth  and learning and contribution,” explained Rev. Billington, who previously was the director for the Appalachia Habitat for Humanity.

Parents who become involved in Hidden Wings would have their children evaluated for particular talents and aspirations, as well as any difficulties they might have interacting with the public or in certain social situations, the Billingtons said. Potentially, an individually designed program for training and eventual job placement would be created. They might even be able to offer training in areas such as understanding social cues during interactions at lunch or on coffee breaks, appropriate grooming  and other elements that would help with success, Rev. Billington said.

The couple, who have four sons, expect to offer such services for free, and are looking for volunteers and financial assistance. They’d like to create a specific area where the youngsters could practice their skills without ridicule or anxiety.

“We’d give them a place where they’d have a community,” Rev. Billington said. “Ultimately, we want them to have some life where they can function independently, so they’re not just in a home with a caregiver.”

Hidden Wings has “become our passion,” said Dr. Billington, who works as an internist at Sansum Clinic.

Robert Coles, a psychiatry professor and the James Agee professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University has known the Billingtons for three decades. He calls their endeavor a focus on one of the country’s greatest needs, “opening the expanse of possibilities to those people casually labeled as autistic, but bearing each, a unique gift.  This couple has a rock solid commitment, borne of their own experience; they have the highest ethical standards, and have worked tirelessly for over a decade in bringing out the unique gifts, rather than settling for the outward obstacles of these youngsters.”