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.

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

This weekend I read two articles that made me think about the needs for adults with autism. One was from a Minneapolis Star Tribune feature, the other from Cargill News.

Homes for Adults with Autism

Alternative Living in the Star Tribune was about ingenuity that parents employ to find real homes, not institutional homes, for their adult children with disabilities. No longer believing that adults with disabilities have nothing to offer, parents have lobbied for and won services that allow these individuals to become self-sufficient as adults. So, homes that allow them to live with independence are a natural outcome. Families are getting creative and finding ways to give their children a home, not just a roof over their heads.

One section in particular from that article stood out to me. There are 1 million to 1.5 million Americans with autism, 80 percent of whom are younger than 22, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The statistics are frightening,” said Tony Paulauski of the Arc of Illinois, an advocacy organization. “What’s going to happen to all these folks? We are bracing ourselves for a demographic wave and we are totally unprepared.”

Some of us, mostly parents of children with disabilities, saw this coming years ago. We have almost single-handedly been working toward a solution: homes and jobs for our children. But the need has become too great to apply it only to our own microcosm.

“People see how futile the situation is,” Paulauski said. “And as government continues to shrink, it becomes even more important that families look at other sustainable models.”

Jobs for Adults with Autism

In another article, the January/February issue of Cargill News, the company newsletter, I read about a positive outcome for young adults with autism who work inside a corporation, at jobs that use their talents and skills. As part of Project SEARCH (now called LEARN), 12 students with disabilities, including autism, were asked to intern at Cargill. Employees embraced the interns and were pleased with the outcome.

But individuals with autism know they have skills and abilities that are infinitely marketable; that’s not the problem. It’s employers who need convincing.

Debbie Dykstra at Cargill Canadian headquarters in Winnipeg gets it. “I think it’s easy to have preconceived notions,” she said. “We have to work to dispel those, and focus on matching an individual’s skills with our needs as an organization.”

Embracing creativity, standing together and stepping out of the societal comfort zone is the only way our loved ones with autism will have the jobs and homes they deserve.

Every part of our society needs to find a way to encourage meaningful participation in a variety of forms. All of us at Erik’s Ranch & Retreats are working to make that a reality.