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.

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.

As we build the Minnesota and Montana locations for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, the urgent need for safe, supported environments for adults with autism is undeniable.

Recently the Autism Speaks news site posted this news story: Fox News Looks at the Need for More Housing for Adults with Autism. Also contained in that posting was a survey that will help Autism Speaks “increase the support of both the public and private sectors to expand housing and residential supports opportunities for individuals with autism.” If you have a chance, go to the link respond to the survey.

I was saddened (but not surprised) by this quote in the Fox News article. “Approximately 80 percent of adults with autism up to 30 years old live at home for one reason—there is not enough affordable housing available, both the physical space and the appropriate supports,” Lisa Goring, vice president of family services at Autism Speaks, said.
The model we use for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats is one that not only offers a home, but also provides work and support based on individual need. More important, what sets this residential setting apart is that the residents will help run the operation. Both locations will offer guest accommodations and our residents will serve these guests as chefs, personal concierges, landscape architects, grounds keepers, whatever their passion.

As the communications director, I talk a lot about paying attention to the individual, not the diagnosis, and I believe with all my heart that this is the answer to helping adults with autism live rewarding and fruitful lives. Skills and abilities are latent in everyone, and everyone deserves the opportunity to explore theirs. That is our premise, at least.

The process for building what individuals with autism need is slow, but it is progressing, because more people are becoming aware of the problem. We are nearly ready to invite the first 13 residents to live in Erik’s Retreat in Edina, Minnesota. Funding, of course, is always an issue, but we work hard to find ways to garner financial support because the need is great.

Finally, I want to thank all of those who are helping to make the Erik’s Ranch & Retreats vision a reality. I hope that everyone who knows about our endeavor will pass the information on. More awareness, more support, more people who care will change the future for adults with autism.

 

Homes—real homes—for adults with autism are in short supply. Group homes don’t quite fill the bill for everyone; living with parents will only work for so long in most instances, living alone in a house doesn’t always work… . What is the solution to provide housing for a population that is growing quickly and subsequently reaching adulthood in large numbers? I ran across an excellent article on the Autism After 16 website that takes a serious look at this question. There isn’t an easy answer, but I think the direction to take is becoming clearer.

With the question of homes and jobs for adults with autism in mind, staff and board members of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats traveled to Bozeman, Mont., at the end of February to gather support and awareness for Erik’s Ranch, our home and work place for adults with autism in Montana. I was grateful to the new people who attended the meetings and for their obvious interest and willingness to learn about autism. With education and awareness comes acceptance. With acceptance will come willingness to interact meaningfully with individuals who have different abilities and who express themselves differently. Ultimately, and I don’t think this is a huge leap, jobs and homes will follow. Real jobs and real homes.

But, as a parent of a child with autism, I also know that in spite of interest and enthusiasm, life has a way of distracting those who don’t have someone with autism in their everyday life. The building of the ranch in Montana and our retreat in Minnesota will help to create an ongoing and visible presence, which fosters more awareness and acceptance.

The reason I once again bring up the topic of homes and jobs for adults with autism in this blog is because of the urgency I feel for my own son and the urgency I hear from other parents. If you have ideas or ways to reach out to each other, please do so. Connection and solidarity will help us to advance our cause naturally and with strength. We are all in this together, and together we can foment change.

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.