Think about a time when your self-worth took a hit. Chances are your confidence took a dive and you needed reassurance. Maybe you turned to family, friends, co-workers or someone you trusted to regain your self-esteem.

But, what if you didn’t have a circle of support? Where would you turn if every time you tried to engage or interact with others you were shot down? Can’t imagine it? Well, maybe this article from the Billings Gazette will give you insight into what it is often like when a person has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This comment from the article haunts me: “He was void of self-worth.”

The topic of self-worth has surfaced in this blog more than once. With good reason. There is in our midst a population of individuals who are misunderstood, and as a result, shunned or passed over because of their differences. It takes courage to keep going in adversity, and when you’ve been beaten down, it takes more than courage. It takes belief in yourself. But, where does that come from? As the article points out, when Morris’s self-worth and confidence was restored, the Guardian Spirit was the tangible result. I have nothing but praise for the therapist who recognized a potential solution and encouraged Morris to pursue it. Granted Morris had to develop his self-worth in a virtual world, and it changed his life, but what if he’d had a supportive environment to begin with?

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, but I need to say this until it’s heard by many more of us. So many individuals with autism spectrum disorder have talents, skills and abilities that languish in vibrant and creative people, with no outlet. Like Morris, these individuals need encouragement and support.

As you may know, Erik’s Ranch & Retreats has programs at both facilities in Minnesota and Montana called Erik’s Minnesota Adventures and Erik’s Montana Adventures. Adults with ASD lead tours that run the gamut from trail rides to architecture to history to art. Similar ideas will catch on eventually. Other groups will recognize the value of creating and providing opportunities, spawning new means of integrating people with different abilities into the mainstream. But it takes time, and time is a commodity that many adults with ASD see draining away.

Articles such as the one about Morris are important and inspiring. They bring a momentary flurry of attention. But, they are too quickly forgotten as we go about our daily business, our attention diverted to our immediate worlds. I hope to inspire conversation with these blogs. Conversations that spill out into the mainstream consciousness and help to change perceptions. So, I ask you to share these blogs with your social media groups, family, friends, whomever. Let’s begin to dispel the confusion and mistrust that surround ASD and introduce the real people and their value to our immediate worlds.

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When I conceived the idea for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, my son, Erik, was 16. I had been asking myself, as all parents do, “What happens when I’m gone?” The more I searched for a place where he could live and enjoy a fulfilling life with other individuals, the more I realized that he, and a whole generation of young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), were at a crossroad. There were few choices. In addition, I wanted a place where his sisters and others would be excited about visiting him. It had to be self-sustaining, provide opportunities for lifelong learning, and incorporate the community in a way that had never been done before. I wanted the next generation model; a shift in consciousness about how we as a society would include these talented individuals in day-to-day life. It became obvious that if there was going to be a place where these young people could not only live, but have a voice and enjoy lives full of purpose and promise and possibility—living the lives they were meant to live—I’d have to build it.

As a result, my mission became to create a safe, supportive environment for these young people to engage in meaningful activities and to expand their skills. That is the overarching purpose of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats. Yet, when I have reached out for funding support I have heard countless times from foundations and corporations that they don’t fund such endeavors because these young people are not in crisis.

I beg to differ. This is a crisis; make no mistake.

Let me just refresh you with some statistics. Autism is now diagnosed in one in every 88 births. The numbers have climbed for years, and children for whom services are available are running out of options as they reach adulthood.

Building Erik’s Ranch & Retreats has been an uphill battle, but worth every exhausting minute, and we are making good headway. I hear from parents of young adults with ASD every day, asking if the Ranch in Montana or the Retreat in Minnesota is open. Their teenage and twenty- something children with ASD are isolated, depressed, outcast and floundering.

Recently, I ran across a Psychology Today article from 2008: Autism Into Adulthood — Making the Transition

It’s a fascinating article and this particular section stood out to me:

The Language of Autism
“When someone says, ‘My son has autism,’ many of us expect to see a child who rocks back and forth, does not speak, and is mentally handicapped. However, we may, in fact, see a child, teen, or adult whose outward appearance and actions are what we consider normal; who can play any music by ear but cannot solve a simple math problem.”

In the same article, Pamela Dixon Thomas, PhD, LP, a psychologist with the University of Michigan Autism and Communication Disorders Center, says, adults with autism face challenges that children with autism often do not. “Adults face discrimination that comes from a lack of understanding about autism. The tolerance that is extended to children with autism is often lacking,” she notes. Although autism is receiving substantial attention in the scientific community and from the press, adult autism and related issues have been neglected.”

These are the young people I’m talking about. These are individuals who are smart, talented and eager to do something. Despite their abilities, they are often stigmatized by ASD and shunned by employers and their peers. They become depressed because they are isolated. It’s an invisible crisis. But, it is a crisis because unchecked depression can so easily accelerate into something much more visible.

For instance, I recently heard from a single mother in New York. Her daughter is a gifted musician. Because of ASD, her daughter has no outlet for her abilities. While mom is at work, the daughter hangs around the apartment alone, lonely and depressed, which builds serious self-esteem issues. One day, she just had to get out. She left the apartment, got on public transportation and was lost for two days.

A parent called me from Wyoming. Her son, age 18, is physically and mentally capable. He drives, he’s intelligent and eager to work. But, some social inabilities keep him isolated; shunned, really. He, too, is lonely and depressed. His confidence has been usurped by self-consciousness. Sometimes he just gets in the car and drives, ending up who knows where. His parents fear for his safety.

These are not isolated cases. I hear these stories every day.

Even though these young people are so close to being able to live on their own, they still need support and some guidance. But, there is nowhere for them to go. We are making progress with our Montana and Minnesota locations, but it isn’t happening fast enough to help these young people. We need a strong voice; one that will make everyone take notice, not just parents of young adults with ASD.

Please, take the time to make your voice heard. Direct the people you know—family, friends, co-workers, corporations, your church, your book club, everyone—to our site. Help them understand that by doing nothing we are relegating an entire population to a life of quiet desperation. Maybe if we stand together we can turn the tide.

Remember how, as a child, you would get upset when a brother or sister copied what you were doing? Remember, too, how mom usually told you that copying is the sincerest form of flattery? Well, Erik’s Ranch & Retreats is being copied, and WE ARE THRILLED. It tells me that what we’re doing is spot on, and that our reach has expanded nationally and internationally.

I have shared information about Erik’s Ranch with groups as close as Nebraska and California and as far away as Australia. These groups are at work creating residential centers similar to our Ranch and Retreat. The truth is, this program is a paradigm shift. We are changing the way people see individuals with autism, and how they are naturally integrated in society in a way that is meaningful for all of us.

I’d like to share with you an excerpt from an email exchange with Ian, a gentleman from Australia. He heard about us and picked up the difference/richness/shift in thinking of our model, which is a departure from the norm. Rather than teach young adults with autism one skill and then send them out to try to use it, we look at their inherent skills, build on those and let individuals expand on or diversify their skills. Young adults who live at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats will not only have a lifetime home, they will run the guest accommodations, interacting daily with voluntourists from all over the country and the world and continue to learn new recreational and occupational skills on a regular basis.

Ian got it. He took the information to heart and has started the wheels turning in Australia to get a similar program up and running. (I’ll have more to say about this in a separate blog, but for now I want you to savor the excitement contained in Ian’s email.)

Here are his thoughts:

“Just wanted to drop you a line and say we are still working on the new project. The new venture is currently being called Autism Homes for Life. We will name the property as we get closer.

I have found a few day care programs [in Australia] but nothing like what we are trying to do. A Group in Queensland has a similar idea, but they are waiting for someone to give them some land in a rather exclusive area.

We are looking to base our facility in the Riverland, on a working farm, near a town (approximately three miles away) that is looking for population growth and industry/tourism growth. We are also going to look at how ECO GREEN we can make the place, not only in running the property, but also with tourism and food growing.

How cool would it be to have our own organic fruits and vegetables, with the tag line “where being different is being normal.” So the wheel is starting to turn, I have a few politicians interested in the project, and we are currently looking for a high-profile person to become our ambassador. Every one I speak to loves the idea, but now just need to turn the love into $$$.

I have pages of chook scribblings (must be an Australian thing) on my desk of ideas, designs, things to find and do. But I guess it will all come together, I just need to keep the passion burning.”

His excitement is palpable. It tells me that this program of ours is an idea whose time has come, and it is being picked up worldwide.
As I noted before, we aren’t just setting up another residential home for young adults with autism. There are other group homes/living accommodations in the marketplace, but none that combine fulfilling careers, unequaled living, a built-in social infrastructure and outstanding recreational opportunities in a single operation.

We will work with these young people to develop their abilities and skills and to use them. They are, in essence, learning to be self-sufficient in a world of their choosing. It’s all any of us could ask for, and it’s all every one of us deserves.