Since 2002, The Birchtree Center has helped children and youth with autism develop the skills they need for full and productive lives in their families, homes, and communities.

Our genesis story is the compelling tale of a tenacious mother and her son.  When Barbara Frankel, MSW, PhD, Professor of Family Studies, learned that her 16-month-old son, Elliott, had autism, she struggled to find appropriate treatment/education for him near their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  “There weren’t any specialized programs for very young or school-aged children with autism in our area,” she recalls.

Dr. Frankel’s research led her to Applied Behavior Analysis.  “I knew that an effective treatment for Elliott would have to be scientifically based, with a proven track record,” she says.  She established a comprehensive home-based program for her son.

Dr. Frankel learned quickly that many New Hampshire families living with autism were facing the same struggles she had.  To help these families obtain the specialized services their children needed, Dr. Frankel established a nonprofit school for students with autism in Portsmouth. The Birchtree Center for Children incorporated in 2000, registered as a not-for-profit organization in 2001, and opened its doors in December 2002.

birch trees

Dr. Frankel named our organization after the New Hampshire state tree, the white birch.  This shallow-rooted tree often grows in clusters to survive. Barbara had learned that, like a birch tree, a child with autism needs to be supported by family and community to grow and flourish.

More than four-hundred generous individuals, thirty foundations, thirty-five corporations and businesses, and twenty-five school districts and community agencies supported Birchtree in its earliest years.  Thanks to the hard work of our founder and the generous support of the community, we were able to establish the first and only educational day program approved by the New Hampshire Department of Education that enrolls exclusively children and youth with autism.

Our center-based program quickly grew to accommodate the rising demand for our services.  By 2006, enrollment at our center had increased from four to nineteen students, and we had begun to establish a high-school program serving older students.

In 2007, we changed our name to “The Birchtree Center” to reflect the expansion of our programs to serve children, youth, and families with autism. That same year, we debuted an Outreach Program serving students, families, schools, and community agencies throughout Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.  In 2010, we moved from Portsmouth to Newington, New Hampshire. In 2021, we returned to a new, larger location in Portsmouth.

Today, The Birchtree Center is a multi-faceted autism agency serving hundreds of individuals per year. More about Birchtree’s recent progress is in our Community Report.

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