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 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.

I watched an interesting video the other day. A young woman named Faith Jegede talked about what she has learned from her brothers who both have autism. This arresting comment she made toward the end of the video made me want to stand up and cheer.

“The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential,” she said. “So, please don’t call me normal.”

I applaud Faith’s perspective and admission that, yes, there have been trials when it comes to her brothers, but they recede in light of what her brothers have taught her about life and living.

I know that we have just gone through Autism Awareness month. But, I think there’s more to do than just making people aware that autism exists and that it has become an epidemic.

Society would be better served by looking past the differences of individuals with autism. Expanding our idea of what is normal bears consideration. They are who they are, as we are who we are. I want to be accepted for who I am. I should not expect that to be any different for someone who has autism.

Let me tell this story to help illustrate what I mean. A young adult with autism was asked to participate in an internship at a large company. The work he was assigned was menial and mostly repetitive; certainly not a job that would challenge anyone. One day a piece of equipment came in that needed repair. None of the professionals could figure out what was wrong, and therefore, couldn’t fix it. While they went on break, however, the intern diagnosed the problem and repaired the equipment, saving the company thousands of dollars. But, rather than recognize his abilities and promote him to more suitable work, he was merely thanked and sent back to his menial tasks.

When the myopic pursuit of normal is expanded, potential will no longer be sacrificed.

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.

A National Institute for Mental Health press release issued January 15 proclaimed, Study Documents that Some Children Lose Autism Diagnosis. This study, conducted by autism researcher Deborah Fein, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Connecticut, was funded by the National Institutes of Health. It focused on 34 individuals who had been diagnosed with autism at a young age, but moved off the autism spectrum, as they grew older.

“Although the diagnosis of autism is not usually lost over time, the findings suggest that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “For an individual child, the outcome may be knowable only with time and after some years of intervention. Subsequent reports from this study should tell us more about the nature of autism and the role of therapy and other factors in the long term outcome for these children.”

But, in reading the article, I thought to myself “Am I reading this correctly? It suggests that we finally have scientific data to support that children actually do lose their diagnoses, and then goes on to say that “we really don’t know how to do that,” but we should figure it out?

We’ve had data for some time, and a proven method, which shows that children can indeed lose their diagnosis of autism.  In 1987, Ivaar Lovass, PhD, showed through Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) that children could recover from autism. Lovass Institute Midwest, in Minneapolis, directed by Eric Larsson, PhD, LP, BCBA, has documented recovery levels of 60 percent for children treated. Impressive and amazing. Yet the scientific community continues in this ongoing and pointless battle of whether ABA is valid. If a cancer treatment had similar data, it would have been implemented across the board decades ago. Recovery means normal social skills and normal IQ. Most of us would give our right arm to have that for our children (even if some symptoms remain), and half of them can achieve those outcomes if provided with the appropriate early intervention. It is what the world needs now, and has needed for years.

In an editorial by Sally Ozonoff, joint editor of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, said, “Moving the possibility for recovery from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) beyond public discourse and into scientific discourse is critical. No, recovery won’t be possible for everyone. No, recovery is not the only outcome worth fighting for. But it is high time we, as a scientific field, talked seriously about this as a possibility. As recent political events have demonstrated, hope can be a powerful tool. By demonstrating that there is solid science behind hope, we can add fuel to the urgency for very early diagnosis and intensive treatment of ASD.”

Then, I ran across this blog by “There is no such thing as false hope. There is only hope.” on Autism Speaks. I believe the author is spot on with her comments and I have to wonder why are we still dancing around the word recovery? Why not just implement a method that includes early intervention and has such a terrific track record?

Positive awareness of perceived disabilities in general, and autism in specific, is growing everywhere, and the Miss America Pageant is no exception. This year’s event was distinctive due to some of the contestants’ background stories. Two in particular stand out to me: Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, is the first contestant to have autism, and Miss Iowa, Mariah Cary, who has Tourette’s Syndrome.

Recognition of these two individuals is remarkable in so many ways.  The most important being that the people, not the disorder, became the focus. So, I took time to view this link to Miss Montana and was certainly impressed with her platform, Normal is just a Dryer Setting. One thing she said in her video stood out to me, and I think it personifies what we’d all like to see relative to those with autism. “We cannot kill what is not a sickness,” she says. “But we can begin to understand autism and help those [with autism] to unlock the potential that lies in all of us.”

Truer words were never spoken. Even though she did not win the pageant, her message and the awareness that comes with her presence on stage are priceless.

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.