When it’s seen as a disability, autism is being done a serious disservice. Yes, individuals with autism have different social and communication methods. But, those distinctions make them more aware of details that other people can miss or pass over.

An article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the value to employers in hiring individuals with autism, and we applaud this initiative for several reasons. First, despite graduating from high school, and in many instances college, about 85 percent of these adults with autism are still unemployed. Second, given the most recent announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, we can only expect the increase in unemployed adults with autism to explode unless the rich abilities of these individuals are recognized.

This is a topic that I have discussed before in this blog, and it is heartening to see more changes beginning to take shape. It has always been clear to me that we should be more attuned to what individuals with autism can do rather than what they cannot. Working with their abilities is good for adults with autism, but it is also good for business and society in general.

Genuine Genius shows video from individuals who are skilled and talented and have passions that could translate into creative and functional career paths. But finding outlets for their genius is still daunting.

As we bask in the glow of the April grand openings of Erik’s Retreat in Minnesota and Erik’s Ranch in Montana, we know that living and working possibilities for adults with autism can and will become the norm. Because there are those who can see beyond the word autism to the individual, others will begin to see the potential.

Two significant news items about autism came out this week: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism—a 30 percent increase in two years—and findings indicate autism begins before birth.

In a CBS news report regarding the increase in diagnoses, Liz Feld, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said in a statement, “Behind each of these numbers is a person living with autism. Autism is a pressing public health crisis that must be prioritized at the national level.”

Although early intervention is called upon to help rewire the child brain, what happens to those who are fast reaching adulthood?

Michael Rosen, a spokesperson for Autism Speaks, pointed out the gravity of that question:

“We went from one in 110 to one in 88 and now one in 68, and these kids are getting older,” he said. “You don’t die from autism. You live a long life. So every year 50,000 of these kids reach 18 and lose their services. They need places to live, employment.”

“These are people,” Rosen added, “not numbers.”

The innovative model of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats seeks to provide a place to live, coupled with employment at Erik’s Retreat in Minnesota and Erik’s Ranch in Montana. Funding is what stands in the way. Join us as the grand openings April 11 in Minnesota and April 25 in Montana to learn how to help make a difference for this underserved population

A recent study has affirmed my conviction that if adults with autism have meaningful work, symptoms of autism are reduced and their ability to navigate day-to-day experiences are improved.

The article that discussed the findings notes that, “Researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined 153 adults with autism and found that greater vocational independence and engagement led to improvements in core features of autism, other problem behaviors and ability to take care of oneself.”

The information contained in this article verifies what we at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats have seen firsthand in numerous ways. One example is Erik’s Minnesota Adventures, which we launched in 2012. We hired adults with autism to lead educational, entertaining and unique tours throughout the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro. The tours are based on the interests and abilities of the adults with autism. In the past year and a half, we have watched each tour guide gain confidence, independence and social and communication skills as they have grown into their jobs. The transformation has been thrilling to watch.

The Vanderbilt study also notes that, “Underemployment is a common phenomenon among adults with autism, the authors noted, with around 50 percent of adults with autism primarily spending their days with little community contact and in segregated work or activity settings.”

Having said that, I also want to point to a blog I found on the Autism Speaks website about small business and adults with autism. This, too, confirms my belief that cottage industry will pave the way to meaningful jobs for adults with autism. Small businesses are more uniquely positioned to hire and work with adults with autism, in large part because there may be more flexibility, or the ability to tailor the work to the individual.

As we continue to develop Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, creating opportunities for individuals with autism, we work to develop jobs that challenge and reward them. We applaud all who have taken to heart the need to employ skilled and talented adults with autism.

Cottage industry may be the front-runner to successfully integrate individuals with autism and the broader community. The symbiosis of small business and adults with autism may be the missing link that will begin to lead the way for greater accomplishment in employment training and acceptance of different abilities. It’s a process we are honored to be part of.

An interesting blog in the Huffington Post by Whitney Bradley crossed my desk the other day. This first-person account of a young man with Asperger’s (I know, it supposedly no longer exists) syndrome is a sad testament to our society that I’ve brought up more than once in my blogs. The closing words of his blog still haunt me. “I’m lost, suffocating in poverty, and I have a disability that is the primary cause of that.”

Then, not a day later I found this blog by Amy Gravino, about adults with autism being bullied in the work place. It’s difficult for me to believe that such callous and unenlightened behavior continues to exist. People—adults in theory—tormenting those who are different and thinking it’s OK to do so. Business as usual.

In the first article, Bradley displayed a wit and sense of humor that belies his situation. I found his blog to be Bradley’s way of reporting the depressing state of affairs for many adults in his situation; bright, talented and gifted individuals, without the support and opportunities mainstream society enjoys. In both articles, bullying was a sad refrain. We work hard to stop bullying on the playground. Why is it being taken up again with impunity in the workplace?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage the abilities of these individuals, while mentoring them in communication and social skills? Everyone would benefit. Companies would recognize the dedication and hard work that so often accompany a diagnosis of autism, not to mention the elevated skills in many instances. As Bradley said, “Not only can I fix your bicycle, I can explain to you what makes the steel tubing in it good or bad, I can explain how a triaxial weave works on your carbon frame, and the physics of how you shift gears or stop. With no prior experience I replaced the rear end on a Ford Expedition. And I did it in an afternoon, the right way.

“But what I can’t do is shake hands and make eye contact all day. That beats the hell out of me. Because of that, I’ve been homeless more than a few times.”

Society, too, would benefit economically if adults with autism were employed and individuals with autism wouldn’t be consigned to a life of poverty and isolation.

Gravino was fortunate, she found work where autism is understood and individuals with autism are supported. She is right when she states that bullying is an issue that doesn’t stop at the edge of the playground and needs to be addressed. The only way it can be addressed is to expose it. The only way to expose it is to be intolerant of bullying. Befriend people with different abilities, support their efforts and don’t look the other way or participate when bullying occurs in the work place. Be courageous. Take it into your own hands. Change the tide.

A Mother’s Holiday Wish

December 17, 2013

As 2013 winds down, my heart is full of appreciation for the remarkable progress we’ve made at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats. I won’t outline the strides that have been made in building a home for adults with autism that will also create jobs for them that fit their skills, interests and abilities. Instead, this blog is a mother’s holiday wish for adults with autism.

My son Erik was diagnosed with autism at age 2. At that time, two in 10,000 children were being diagnosed with autism. Today, as Erik has cleared his 22nd birthday, one in 50 are diagnosed with it. That’s a huge increase, but it also portends a grim future for those children once they reach adulthood. I realized when Erik was young that this problem was not being addressed, and I needed to address it. The idea of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats began to form because I didn’t want Erik to be without options.

As a mother, I know my son would be angry and depressed if he were relegated to a life of menial tasks. I couldn’t bear that. So, I’ve been working since 2008 to create a place for adults with autism where they can use their abilities to work in a safe and supported environment that is also their home. But I want this possibility for more than just my son.

In my dreams, I envision an environment for adults with autism that offers them the opportunity to develop their skills and translate them into meaningful jobs. These adults would be at home with peers and guests who come to stay at our ranch in Montana and retreat in Minnesota. Adults with autism and guests will get to know each other, fostering integration of community members into the lives of adults with autism and vice versa. As the lines of friendship form, the lines of what we perceive as normal become blurred, and a new definition of normal can rightly appear.

Do you think my wish is a pipedream? I don’t. To paraphrase Walt Disney, “If I can dream it, I can achieve it.” I invite everyone to participate in this dream.

As Erik’s mother and CEO of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, my wish for everyone this holiday season is that if you have big dreams, you set out to achieve them.images

Happy holidays from all of us at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats

It’s no secret that once children with autism graduate from high school—50,000-plus individuals annually—they are less likely than their peers to find jobs. But more troubling is that peers with other disabilities—low IQs, learning disabilities and difficulty speaking and communicating—fare much better. Not only do they more often find jobs, they receive more pay, according to studies cited in a Health Day article.

Another study featured in the same article goes hand-in-hand with jobs. When it comes to living arrangements, “researchers found that only 17 percent of young adults with autism, who were between 21 and 25 years old, had ever lived on their own.” It does stand to reason, however, that without a job, adults with autism are without the financial means to live on their own.

The saddest thing about the results of these studies is that these situations do not need to prevail. The problem, in part, is that there are not enough programs available to help these young adults channel their many skills into acquiring meaningful jobs. But the good news is that some companies and parents are taking matters into their own hands. I’ve mentioned Specialisterne before in this blog. It’s the Danish IT company that only hires individuals with autism. An article in the San Jose Mercury News revealed that Semperical in San Jose, also, will exclusively train and employ individuals with autism as software testers.

But, again, we’re looking at jobs in information technology. Adults with autism have diverse skills. That’s where parents have stepped up. As the link to this article shows, parents realized they needed to create jobs for their children with autism. They are finding ways to help their children break away from the dismal results of these studies. The parents are creating jobs that play to their children’s strengths. These are the grass roots efforts that will make the difference.

Much the same as the parents in the article above, I have lamented that young adults with autism are passed over for jobs they are infinitely skilled to do because of communication and social difficulties. Like these parents, I was frustrated and decided to take the situation into my own hands. That was when I created Erik’s Ranch & Retreats and subsequently Erik’s Minnesota Adventures. But, I’m only one person and I don’t have all the answers. So many young people need our help, and in a concerted effort we can raise our voices and lend our efforts to accommodating the skills and abilities of these young adults. The learning curve for changing the way society views individuals with autism, the perspective of what is normal and how businesses incorporate workers with different abilities is a huge undertaking, but it’s a change that must be made.

It takes groups of like-minded and interested individuals to collaborate, plan and educate the entire country, while cottage industries may be the interim solution for adults with autism to find opportunities to lead lives of purpose and possibility. How to make the change is a conversation that must occur among all of us.

Offer Hope, Change Lives

November 4, 2013

I was recently told that because autism isn’t life-threatening, it often isn’t a giving priority. But when I hear stories such as the one from the father who found Erik’s Ranch & Retreats too late for his son who ended his own life for lack of a supported living situation, I beg to differ. Or what about the Ohio woman who tried to take her life and her autistic daughter’s because the constant care and lack of resources became too much for the mother to bear. I could tell you many more such stories, but you get the point.

Maybe autism doesn’t pose the threats that those with a terminal illness face, but certainly it could be considered life-limiting. The need for productive and meaningful outlets for adults with autism is growing because the population is expanding. Society is unprepared to accommodate adults with autism. Government has begun to provide services to children but after a certain age, aid ceases. So, why am I bringing this up in this blog?

GiveMN is just around the corner. As communications director for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, I’m going to ask you to consider making a donation to our nonprofit a priority during this charitable event. Erik’s Ranch & Retreats is more than a residential center. You see, we take the time to understand where our residents’ skills, talents and interests lie, and we help create jobs that suit their individual needs. Our approach is a departure from the usual method of finding any menial job and hoping that the individual can stand the monotony. But, like anyone who finds him- or herself in unproductive activities day after day, depression and anger often take over.

Erik’s Ranch & Retreats can help adults with autism engage in meaningful work, but we need financial assistance. That’s why I’m asking you to be part of GiveMN. You don’t need to be a Minnesota resident to give to our ranch in Montana or the retreat in Minnesota. Our doors will be open to adults with autism from any place in the world once building is completed.

You can begin donating November 1 right up through Give to the Max Day, November 14. Your donation will help us offer hope, security and a sense of self-worth to more young adults with autism. So please, donate to Erik’s Ranch & Retreats at http://givemn.razoo.com/story/Eriks-Ranch. Everyone deserves a chance to live a life of promise.

Connections among people are vital to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Anyone who took psychology 101 will probably remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It goes something like this: fundamental among needs humans require is connection—esteem, friendship and love. If these are not met, individuals feel anxious and tense.

Also, as anyone who has been affected by autism will attest, connection is often more difficult because of the disorder or misperceptions about autism

I’ve started this blog mentioning Maslow and the human needs because I watched, and was charmed by, a spectacle that took place Friday night at the Erik’s Ranch & Retreats’ Diamonds in the Rough. Although it ostensibly was a fundraiser and awareness raiser for adults with autism, I watched connections being made among people who would not ordinarily have come together.

Under the aegis of an art exhibit and sale, our Erik’s Minnesota Adventures tour guides convened at Griffin Gallery in Edina, Minnesota, to mingle with artists and guests. I watched each of the young adults with autism easily converse with guests. I think back to a year ago, when Erik’s Minnesota Adventures had just started. These same social butterflies were not nearly as confident, nor would they have mingled as easily as they did this year.

I’m not saying that Erik’s Minnesota Adventures is the only reason they have self-confidence, but it has helped them find their voices. The connections each one made warms my heart and tells me that changing perception is tantamount to what we do at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats.

As fundraisers go, I would have liked to sell more art. On a connection basis, however, I believe that it was a huge success. My thanks to everyone who joined us, helped and made this evening a success.

Mary Nelson, communications director, Erik’s Ranch & Retreats


Earlier this year, revisions to the autism diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) were announced. Parents of children diagnosed with autism were concerned that this change would affect services provided to their children. Even though the new criteria for diagnosis are touted as an improvement to diagnosis, which will provide better services, these parents’ fears seem to be justified.

After merely three months since the DSM-V came out, the Autism Action Network sent an action alert requesting information about how services are being eliminated for individuals with autism. It seems that there are institutions and organizations that have taken the DSM-V criteria and used it to say, “you no longer have autism; so you no longer receive services.”

I have to lament here that the funding battle to help our children just never seems to end. I believe unreasonable thinking has sentenced this population to warehousing or to depression, incarceration and even suicide. From the DSM-V standpoint, it seems we value money far more than the lives of these individuals—we are unwilling to incorporate changes that would make a space for different abilities.

So much of the battle has to do with misperceptions and misunderstandings and staying silent about them. There are ways to foment change and many are incremental. However, if we don’t raise our voices, little will change. Advocacy starts on an individual level and will not reach a global level until our voices are heard.

The Autism Action Network is one voice that is raised. Send your stories to this group and help turn the tide.

Grain Bins by Jane Strauss

Grain Bins by Jane Strauss

After months of planning, soliciting art, working out logistics with Griffin Gallery personnel, the art exhibit and sale, Diamonds in the Rough, is shaping up nicely for its October 11 launch. We’ve received an array of art from jewelry to ceramics to paintings to photography. There really will be something for everyone.

Now, this event could be seen as merely a fundraiser; however, it’s more than that. It’s advocacy. Some pretty talented artists on the autism spectrum have provided art for this event. Our own TJ Jameson, Erik’s Minnesota Adventures tour guide and artist extraordinaire, will be one of the featured artists. Candy Waters, a spectrum artist from Illinois, submitted art prints that we’ll exhibit and sell. Georgina Robertson, a United Kingdom spectrum artist is also part of the show. The list goes on.

Established and emerging artists not on the spectrum, such as relief sculptor Bill Mack, ceramics artist Stephanie Evans and photographer Jeff Hawe, have donated works, as well. This is an event you really don’t want to miss.

You see, the vital aspect of this event is introducing the vast array of talents and abilities that individuals on the autism spectrum possess. At Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, we’ve built programs around what adults with autism can do, focusing on their talents. Society in general is not really working at including adults with autism from that perspective. It’s easier to try to fit all people into molds that we are comfortable with, but in the instance of autism, that doesn’t seem to work too well.

Dress Boxes by Stephanie Evans

Dress Boxes by Stephanie Evans

We need to change the paradigm, and one way to do that is to make society aware of the value of the skills and abilities that individuals with autism possess. Now one art event probably won’t change the misperceptions of autism overnight. But by helping people change their perspective through events such as Diamonds in the Rough is a start.

But, don’t take my word for it. Join us. You can purchase tickets online, and if you can’t attend in person, give the tickets to friends. It’s just one more way to advocate for individuals with autism.

Robin Hood's Nottinghamshire, by Georgina Roberts

Robin Hood’s Nottinghamshire, by Georgina Roberts