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Agricultural Communities for Adults with Autism

November 4, 2010 12 comments

This is a guest post by Gene Besinger. Gene is a parent advocate on issues affecting adults with autism.

“Agricultural Communities for Adults with Autism” is the name of a new alliance of the two dozen or so existing agricultural communities (and several in formation) spread across the country.

For some adults with autism, agricultural communities can be a very important lifespan option that elegantly and simultaneously addresses the two largest issues facing our community: a 95% unemployment rate and severe housing challenges for many adults with autism.  These challenges were highlighted in detail by the recent Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism initiative, led by Autism Speaks and partner organizations.  If you aren’t familiar with this effort, please visit the website to learn more. (www.afaa-us.org).

Everyone in an agricultural community has an interesting, stable, meaningful job of their choice.  For example, some manage and staff community supported agriculture (CSA) programs (several of our communities have highly successful ones), there are many livestock related tasks available, some adults choose to be farmers by growing food, some maintain machinery and equipment.  All the jobs are driven by individual choice, interests, and ability.  Many of our adults enjoy an active lifestyle and outdoor tasks, some prefer indoor jobs.

Housing is also a very tough issue for adults with autism. Nearly 80% of people with autism aged 19-30 live in their parent’s home versus 32% of typical young adults. High costs and the lack of safe, good choices are a big reason why.  We can help solve this issue for some adults. But we can’t keep up with the demand.

Every single one of our communities has a huge waiting list.  Turnover rates are near zero.  We get daily inquiries from people all around the world who would like to have the option of a model like one of ours.  In spite of this huge, demonstrable demand, new agricultural communities are very difficult to get off the drawing board.   This strikes us as a big policy problem that needs fixing.

We’ve created our organization because we think there ought to be two hundred or more communities in the U.S., not two dozen.  We’re sharing best practices with one another and helping people navigate the considerable roadblocks to new community formation.

Our communities range in size from 4 to 30 beds.  Most have day programs and jobs for adults from nearby areas.  None of us are “institutional” or “congregate” in the sense of the large multi-hundred bed DD communities that many activists want to see closed down.    We cannot be large because large simply doesn’t work for most adults with autism.  In fact, many of our current residents tried that route and either didn’t do well or got kicked out due to behavioral issues.

We believe that rural community based solutions and person centric planning and funding should be available to those who want it.  Most adults in our communities live in individual apartments in a few on-site four to five bedroom single family homes.  Our sites range from a few to over a hundred acres.  Our farms and homes are mostly within walking distance to small and medium sized communities.  We’re not isolated outposts at the fringes of civilization, as some wrongly assume; we’re highly integrated members of our non-urban communities.Our residents and our many day program participants shop, recreate, worship, and interact with our neighbors on a regular basis.

If you have interest in learning more about “Agricultural Communities for Adults with Autism”, please contact the folks who started it all here in the United States 25 years ago (and are still going strong), Bittersweet Farms, just outside Toledo, Ohio.  Vicki Obee-Hilty, Bittersweet’s terrific Executive Director, and her staff will put you on an email and conference call list. www.bittersweetfarms.org

Family Services provides resources and information. If you have a question, contact the Autism Response Team today. If you’re concerned that your child may be affected with autism or if you’ve received a diagnosis, browse the Tools for Families section, where you’ll find our 100 Day Kit, and the Autism Video Glossary. If you’d like to do a quick search for service providers near you, selectFind a Local Resource and browse the Resource Guide.

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