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.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the misunderstanding that so many in our society have about individuals on the autism spectrum. Although autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is termed a developmental disability, it doesn’t mean people with ASD are incapable or unstable.

I believe personal interaction (meaning getting to know individuals with autism) would dispel a lot of the mystery around ASD, but there hasn’t been a clear reason for people to do so. As a result, when incidents such as the one in Newtown, Conn., occur, assumptions are made—erroneously, more often than not. A case in point was the media suggestion that Adam Lanza was on the autism spectrum, which precipitated the violence. That assumption prompted Kerry Korner to present to the media a more accurate perspective.

Along the same vein, in a conversation with a friend recently, I was surprised at his lack of understanding about autism. This man is intelligent and well-read, but woefully misinformed about the disorder, and especially about the individuals with ASD. In my own way, I presented him with a more accurate perspective. So, let me say unequivocally that only personal interaction will allow us to see a person not merely a disorder.

That is the tenet behind Erik’s Ranch & Retreats and, specifically, Erik’s Minnesota Adventures. Six adults with autism hold positions as experience guides, taking groups on two-to-four-hour educational, entertaining and enjoyable tours. Judging by the response to these tours, I know we are on the right track. The experience guides, experts in certain areas, get to show participants who they are, while increasing their confidence and social skills. Participants generally learn something new, while interacting with a talented individual who happens to have ASD.

So often when groups take a tour, attendees describe their experience as exceptional. Really, if you stop to think about it, getting to know anyone requires a leap of faith and willingness to spend some time. So, don’t let a term like autism stop you from getting to know someone with ASD. You’ll never know what you might have missed if you don’t seize the opportunity.

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.

In mid-May, National Public Radio (NPR) ran this news article: 1 in 3 Autistic Young Adults Lack Jobs, Education. This information is not news to parents who have watched their children with autism grow into adults with autism. However, that doesn’t make it any less unsettling.

The article discusses the results of a study that appeared in Pediatrics, based on data from 2007-08. “One in three young adults with autism have no paid job experience, college or technical schooling nearly seven years after high school graduation, a study finds. That’s a poorer showing than those with other disabilities including those who are mentally disabled, the researchers said.”

This study was done before the recession and unemployment escalated in 2008. So, with the job market still being tough, imagine how dire the situation is for adults with autism.

This news, along with new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicates diagnoses of autism has risen to one in 88 births, is the reason we are building Erik’s Ranch & Retreats in two locations. Something needs to be done.

Now. Not in10 years when more than 500,000 children with autism become adults.

I think if you don’t know someone who has autism, or aren’t a close relative, these statistics don’t seem as urgent. But think about the implications. Without jobs, a half million adults will rely on some government subsidies. As our population ages and the number of older workers retire and turn to social services, an economic crisis could easily result. So, this crisis isn’t just limited to adults with autism and their families. It’s really a global concern that must be addressed.

Addressing the Need

Paul Shattuck, an assistant professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis and lead author of the study mentioned in the NPR story, says this: “There is this wave of young children who have been diagnosed with autism who are aging toward adulthood. We’re kind of setting ourselves up for a scary situation if we don’t think about that and how we’re going to help these folks and their families.”

This is where Erik’s Minnesota Adventures comes in. It offers opportunities for adults with autism to work when other traditional businesses shy away from hiring them. I recently heard from a friend who invited members of her book club to take a tour with Erik’s Minnesota Adventures. Here is what she had to say. “We just went on Mariah’s Celtic tour. It was obvious to everyone that a lot of time and effort went into planning this tour (as I’m sure has gone into the other tours). We were enchanted by what we learned, our interaction with Mariah and stepping beyond our usual comfort zone (we took an Irish dance lesson) on turf that was not customary. I have to tell you, this tour was the most fun we’ve had in a long time for all of the reasons I just mentioned.”

Another thing I’ve learned about people who don’t know someone with autism; assumptions are automatically made about their abilities. In fact, when I told another friend about the tours with Erik’s Minnesota Adventures, he was astonished that the experience guides are able to conduct the tour. This lack of awareness about autism is a huge barrier and even more reason for people to get to know individuals with autism. These tours are designed to do just that. They are at the heart of our purpose; bidirectional integration (a term we coined). Or in simple language, this kind of exposure helps those with autism gain socialization, communication skills and self-confidence as experts in an area. It helps those without autism expand their socialization, communication skills and self-confidence in interacting with different capabilities. Seems like a win-win to me.

So, go ahead, engage your sense of adventure, speak out, reach out and step out of your comfort zone to help expand awareness. Take a tour, tell someone you know about what we are doing; get involved.