We developed the model for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats to make sure that adults with autism have choices; just as you and I have choices. You could argue that there are a lot of people in jobs they dislike or that don’t challenge their intellect or stimulate them. But, I’m talking about choice. If you or I decide not to go to college or train for work that suits us, it’s most often a choice. If we find ourselves in jobs that stymy our intellect or creativity, we can choose to do something different. Not so for most individuals with autism.

These individuals possess exceptional capabilities, but people tend to see the disorder not their talent. By not looking for talent, employers often overlook these individuals and they have no outlet for their skills and abilities. It’s time to look beyond a disorder and see the whole person. It’s time to stop perpetuating cookie-cutter fixes and busy work. Programs abound that give these individuals menial tasks, but that’s not the answer.

If I had never put Erik on a horse he would not have developed a passion for these majestic animals. From that love, he has learned to groom and feed horses, giving demonstrations and trail rides. Because Erik’s verbal skills are limited, he couldn’t tell me how much horses mean to him. Recently, however, he found a way. In June, he participated in the Special Olympics Track & Field competition. He won two gold medals in races, and a silver medal in the standing long jump. Even with these achievements, he seemed less than enthused until we returned home. Wearing the medals, he walked over to his riding bag, took it off the hook and said “Horses.” Okay. I got it. We don’t need to look any further for his career path. His avocation has become his lifetime occupation.

Jimmy Reagan is another success story. Because a tutor handed him a pastel when he was 17 and encouraged him to draw, Jimmy has forged a brilliant career. At first he was blasé about art, but persistence paid off, and his paintings are being nationally and internationally acclaimed.

These success stories came about because someone made the extra effort to find an individual’s strengths, abilities and interests and mold those into a vocation.

That is the focus at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats. When I talk with parents I always ask, “What does your son/daughter like to do?” I encourage parents not to look at what is available for their child, but if given a chance how would the child rather spend his or her time?

These kinds of inquiries initiated Erik’s Minnesota Adventures, a tour company. It is one aspect of our larger, all-encompassing vision of volunteer guest accommodations in Minnesota and Montana that will be run by the adults with autism who live there. The tour company is one way that we can showcase the amazing talents of these individuals.

Here is an example of how our model works. One parent told me that her son raises crickets and grasshoppers. “What can he do with this?” she asked. We hit upon the perfect idea. Combine an entomology exhibit with a trip to the Yellowstone River; a fly-fishing Mecca. He can discuss caddis flies and mayflies and the history and science behind fly fishing. This tour has a stellar future. Guests receive essential information; he shares what he loves and is paid for his expertise. These kinds of opportunities can encompass almost any talent/skill if we just think creatively. It’s unfair not to explore what these individuals can do.

If I may be so trite, this is thinking outside the box in a big way. This model hasn’t been explored before; it’s a paradigm shift that is timely and relevant.

In fact, the University of Minnesota is talking with us to study the value of this model. Yes, we are aware that our efforts must be tailored to accommodate the individuals. Yes, it’s a lot more work; but the outcome will set a precedent that cannot be denied.

We are on the verge of changing the way people view individuals with autism and what they can contribute to society. Join us.