Those who understand the complexities of autism know that the nation is facing a great, and rapidly growing need.
"Eighty-five percent of people with autism are under the age of 22," said Mark Jackson, the father of a 19-year-old autistic man. Jackson serves on the coordinating council of the California Senate Select Committee on Autism.
The question becomes how does America deal with the proper care of this expanding segment of the population, which grew at a rate of 1,148 percent in the past 20 years, according to the California Department of Developmental Disabilities. The number of facilities equipped to deal with the special needs of autism are few and far between - more than 80,000 autistic adults are currently waiting up to 10 years for placement in a residential facility. Those daunting statistics inspired a group of Bay Area parents to envision a better option for their autistic children. What they came up with is a revolutionary concept that will take root in Sonoma but could serve as a national model.
"It literally started with 'Where are our kids going to live?'" Jackson said. "We ultimately decided this is bigger than just us."
The parents, aided by an advisory board that includes some of the state's top experts on autism, established the nonprofit Sweetwater Spectrum, which will build a residential living facility exclusively for adults living with autism. The project will be located at the northwest corner of Fifth Street West and West Spain Street, on a 2.9 acre piece of land that the City of Sonoma previously owned, and which was zoned for 14 residential properties. Sweetwater Spectrum won wholehearted support from the City Council, sailed through the Planning Commission and Design Review Commission, and is set to break ground on Sept. 10, with the hopes to have the entire project completed within a year.
Current, forward-thinking policies have New Jersey on track to secure our legacy due to several other factors: the passage and enactment of autism insurance reform legislation in 2009 for evidence-based interventions, continuation and support for a Governor’s Council on Autism Research, establishment of an Office of Autism, passage of First Responder’s Training, and an adult service initiative on housing that will be a catalyst for affordable and appropriate housing options for adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to the formal mechanisms that help to improve our human services infrastructure, there has also been a thoughtful and concentrated effort to embrace the autism community’s challenges by Gov. Chris Christie, the First Lady and other administrative officials.
Notwithstanding all of these important efforts, are they enough to really support the impending needs of people with autism as they transition into adulthood? Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 1.5 million Americans with living with ASD throughout the country, with about 80 percent under the age of 21. According to the Centers for Disease Control, New Jersey’s one-in-94 autism prevalence rate is one of the highest in the nation. Using simple math, we have at least 25,000 fellow New Jersey residents, most of them children, living on the autism spectrum.
Despite more than three decades of public education, group homes continue to face the “not in my backyard” attitude.
So say advocates for those with intellectual disabilities — and Carol Taylor, whose adult son Lane Barnes lives in a group home on Cleveland Avenue Southwest in Decatur.
They say little has changed since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
“We’re still hearing the same old stories about property values and crime,” Taylor said.
Group homes — and property values — have been a topic of discussion in Hartselle lately.
About three weeks ago, Hartselle City Council President Kenny Thompson said his home answering machine was flooded with messages from residents not happy about a proposed group home in the Mason Drive area.
The state licenses group homes in three categories — intellectual disabilities, mental illness and substance abuse. The home in Hartselle would be for those with disabilities, not individuals with psychiatric- or substance abuse-related problems.
In fact, Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties only have intellectual disabilities homes. Morgan leads the way with 50 homes, including 43 in Decatur. There are seven in Limestone and four in Lawrence County.Specific numbers were not available by county, but the waiting list statewide to get into a group home contains 2,700 families, Alabama Department of Mental Health spokesman John Ziegler said.
“There’s definitely a need for more group homes,” he said.