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.

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.

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.

I want to introduce you to Stephen Shore, PhD, speaker, author and consultant whose expertise is working with people with autism.  Shore will speak at the Autism Speaks National Conference for Families and Professionals July 26.

Shore, diagnosed with autism at a young age and nonverbal until age 4, beat a lot of odds because his parents didn’t agree with the doctors that the only option was to institutionalize their child. Today, he is a professor at Adelphia University where his research focuses on matching best-practices to the needs of people with autism.

Shore will discuss his perspective on working with people with autism, and I was particularly drawn to this comment, largely because it is the foundation for Erik’s Ranch & Retreats.

He said, “Autism is a study of extremes, and if we can focus on the strengths and interests of individuals rather than weaknesses, a good employment fit is possible. All of us are more successful when working in an area related to our interests and this is especially true for people on the spectrum.”

Now, I’d like to introduce you to TJ, one of Erik’s Minnesota Adventures tour guides. For those who don’t know, we help adults with autism develop tours based on their skills, interests and expertise. The tours are complimentary, and we’ve been in business for more than a year. Our tour guides have led more than 160 tours with more than 630 volunteer guests. Guests couldn’t be more pleased with the entertaining and educational tours led by these remarkable individuals. TJ is a tour guide whose interests are varied, but we managed to narrow his tours down to art and architecture. For now.

His architecture tour includes the historic James J. Hill House in Minneapolis where he works alongside employees there to present its architectural background and history. So impressive is his knowledge of the history, architecture and background that he was offered the opportunity to apply for a job as a tour guide at the James J. Hill House. Needless to say, TJ was thrilled.

You know, we all shine when the light is cast on our abilities, and that’s the premise behind our program. Helping TJ develop tours that shine a light on his brilliance gave him an opportunity he wouldn’t have otherwise had. We all can excel when we are seen as a whole person. Seeing only autism is so limiting. So, I like to think we’re giving our tour guests the opportunity to see our guides as whole people. The rest comes naturally.

Everyone knows you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, right? If that is such common knowledge, why does society have so few molds into which people can fit?

 

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m talking specifically about adults with autism, but generally about anyone perceived as having a disability. Take a look at this letter from John Franklin Stephens to a celebrity whose tweet used the word retard to describe the president of the United States. You can read his entire thoughtful rebuttal here, but this is the opening comment:

 

“…you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

 

“I’m a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

 

“I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

 

“Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

 

“Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low-grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.”

 

Franklin’s comments struck a nerve with me. His eloquent depiction of what is endured by those who are perceived as different hits home for many on the autism spectrum. It seems that rarely, people look beyond the exterior. But, what if we looked deeper? What if we could see the diamond in the rough? It’s always there; we just need to look past our prejudices.

 

So many people are discounted and even shunned for their differences. But, like Franklin, they persevere and see life as a gift. Let me give you some examples.

 

Oscar Pistorious, born without fibulas in his legs, fought for and won the right to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Nicknamed the Blade Runner because his lower legs are fitted with metal blades, he came in second in his heat. Initially, his bid for the Olympics was rejected because he doesn’t run like everyone else. Eventually, someone saw beyond the surface and let him run. And run he did.

 

Or this video of a young girl with autism, Jodi DiPiazza, who displays a “learning difference, not a learning disability” as she plays and sings with Katy Perry at “Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs” on Comedy Central. As the video shows, medical professionals gave her parents little hope. But, they were wrong.

 

It was the same story for my son Erik. Medical professionals said horseback riding and other sports such as skiing could be dangerous. But we didn’t give up. It took two years to get him to hold the tow rope and now he skis. It takes him a long time to learn, but he can learn.

 

In these examples, someone had the vision to see beyond the surface to what’s inside. When that happens, people can soar. Sometimes it may take a little more effort to pay attention, give someone free rein and follow his or her lead. But when we allow ourselves to change our perception and give someone a chance, magic happens.

 

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.