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.

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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.

As communications director for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, I sometimes like to offer up my views, ideas and thoughts about autism and the adults we serve. Today, I want to discuss advocacy and our upcoming Diamonds in the Rough, which is our inaugural art exhibit and sale.

On the surface, this event may appear to be a fundraiser. Although raising funds is part of the picture, it’s more. Many individuals with autism are talented artists who need an advocate to help them exhibit their work. As any artist knows, art is a tough business and assistance is often a matter of survival. Diamonds in the Rough can be your advocate. The event will include art from individuals on the spectrum, as well as established artists. The established artists may be what draws people in; but once collectors enter the gallery, they could easily discover an unknown artist: YOU.

This is an opportunity to do several things: 1) show your art to collectors, 2) hang your art in a prestigious gallery, 3) receive compensation for your art (artists on the spectrum receive 50 percent of the sale of their art) and 4) possibly be discovered.

There’s still time to submit, just visit our website and look at the Diamonds in the Rough submission guidelines or send an email to art@eriksranch.org and we’ll help you submit art for this event. But don’t wait; the submission deadline is July 30. Contact us today and let the world see what we already know: you have talent.

Traditionally, June is a time for graduation. A time for endings, and a time for beginnings. Young adults leaving high school look to the future with a mixture of eagerness and apprehension. This is true for any high school graduate, but particularly for graduates who live with autism. I ran across this blog on the Autism Speaks website. It offers suggestions, assistance and tips to assist parents of youth with autism to help their children make the transition.

As the blog notes, over the next 10 years, more than a half million children with autism will enter adulthood.

I know I’ve said this before, and maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but NOW is the time to act. To be fair, there are pockets of groups and individuals who understand this. I’ve recently learned of the Madison House Autism Foundation, whose goal is to develop a national conversation around and strategic solutions to the lifespan challenges faced by adults with autism and their families. There are others, but it needs to be a universal cause.

Despite the years of working to advocate for our own children, it’s become even more urgent to advocate for all children and adults on the autism spectrum. Yes, groups are doing that, and I’d love to tell you all the work is done and we can just reap the benefits of that work. However, that’s not the case.

At Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, we have found that with a dawning awareness of the need for continued supports, there’s even more work to do. As advocates for adults with autism, staff at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats look daily for new ways to help society understand that adults with autism have unique and special talents that they need to be able to express. Our tour program, Erik’s Minnesota Adventures is one example of taking the interests and expertise of an adult with autism and turning it into a job that serves that individual and the community at large.

Recently we launched Genuine Genius, videos of individuals with autism doing what they love. We’re soliciting and posting 60-second videos from people around the world to help show the world what we already know; those with autism have talents to share. Follow me on Twitter as I tweet the videos to my followers @KathrynNordberg or visit http://www.mygenuinegenuis.org, watch the videos and then share one of your own. Help society recognize the gifts individuals with autism have.

We, also, are preparing our inaugural Diamonds in the Rough, an art exhibit and sale to benefit adults with autism and Erik’s Ranch & Retreats. This October event will feature art from individuals with autism as well as emerging and established local, national and international artists. Artists with autism will receive compensation for submitting their art and becomes another way for these individuals to demonstrate their value to society and gain compensation for their talents.

I know everyone is busy, but take a moment to visit these sites and see how you can help spread awareness that individuals with autism are skilled and talented and deserve the same opportunities as their peers. This is, after all, a cause that will serve everyone, not just individuals with autism.

If you’re in the mood for some deep reading, I have just the thing. As director of communications for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, I follow news about autism fairly closely. Several weeks ago, in this blog, we focused on the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V, with the most recent changes, one regarding removing a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. This change generated a lot of public concern. Then, just the other day, I found this article in the New York Times. It cited Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He said the DSM-V suffers from a scientific lack of validity.

He wasn’t advocating ignoring the DSM-V altogether, because it is what we have. However, he indicated that science needs to go beyond diagnosing symptoms and focus on biology, genetics and neurosciences to get to the cause. As a result, Dr. Insel announced on April 29 that the NIMH has launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project “to transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system,” and subsequently, more effective treatment. The RDoC is not a quick fix. It will take time to change the way research and diagnosis are conducted. But, it was heartening to learn that emerging data will be used instead of relying on static categories. It will also be interesting to watch and see the outcome of this endeavor.

Shortly after reading Dr. Insell’s announcement, I ran across this article in the New Yorker outlining how the RDoC will change the way diagnosis and subsequent treatment will be reoriented. I gleaned that the NIMH has implemented the RDoC project to continue to move research forward as well as the keep in mind the treatment of unique individuals, and I was encouraged. Which brings me to this story about Kevin, whose doctor already treats people, not just symptoms.

My whole point here is to reiterate that individuals with autism are unique and should not be defined by a diagnosis. When you look closely, you will find that extraordinary potential is not being tapped, and that’s a shame. Looking beyond a category and seeing a person will help foment change in perspective and treatment. That’s why the at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats has been not only to serve those on the spectrum, but to advocate on their behalf.