Category Archives: acceptance

Autism Celebrations, Acceptance, and Community Living

‘There are new rules and guidelines for Home and Community Based Services being drafted that will dictate what type of living and working situations Medicaid dollars will fund for people with disabilities. There is language in the new rules and guidelines that is a threat to the farmstead model. There are disability advocates who believe that farms are by their very nature isolating and that people with disabilities living on a farm will be tantamount to living in an institution…..we at AACORN Farm disagree!’ (Catherine Pinto, founder).   And we at Juniper Hill Farms disagree as well!!

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50 candles on Pete’s birthday cake today!  Yellow cake with buttercream frosting with a banana cream pie on the side, as per Pete’s request that he made LAST week at Andy’s birthday celebration.  25 or so of Pete’s closest friends sang Happy Birthday and cheered as all 50 candles were blown out.  Presents included cans of crab, sardines and oysters as well as doggie treats for Shauna and Pete’s favorite Lemon Ginger Tea.  After cake, we pulled names out of a basket to see who our $5 Secret Santa will be for next week’s holiday party…. And then? Our bellies full of cake and homemade macaroni and cheese, we made the weekly mass exodus off of Juniper Hill for Winter Wednesdays afternoon bowling.

There have been birthdays almost every week since Jose kicked off the birthday season on September 20th… and now after the holidays in January we will have Karen, Patrick, Rebecca, John, and Aggie for 5 birthday weeks in a row.  We’re thankful that we are a community of mostly winter birthdays, or we would never get summer sunflowers planted!

lp.aspxCelebrations happen naturally here on the Hill. There is a momentum that can
not be avoided, an unspoken ‘rule’ … that HERE is where we celebrate.  Here in the loud, crowded, somewhat worn and disheveled dining/family room right off of the always chaotic Juniper Hill kitchen.  A poster on the wall quotes Emma from Emma’s Hope Book …. ‘Helpful Thoughts of Calming Kindness’… wise, poetic words reminding us all to STAY CALM. Through weekly meltdowns, drama, and anxiety… it all comes together somehow. It doesn’t exactly ‘STAY’ together… ever… but it does ‘come together’ each week,  and by the following week everyone is ready to do it again.

Four years ago … in the beginning…… the question ‘How does an adult with a disability celebrate holidays and birthdays once they are living independently in the community?‘ was not considered.  The first six months involved setting up services and support people , finances, pots and pans and furniture. Logistics.

Then all of a sudden, birthdays happened.  And holidays.

But actually … mostly nothing happened.

NOW WHAT?  This was not part of the plan! Families would call and make the effort, but it was often difficult to be available on an actual birthday.  Staff was gone on holidays and there was no guarantee that a birthday would fall on the same day as scheduled staff. And wasn’t I supposed to be ‘just the landlord’?  Who was going to make this happen? And whose responsibility was it to help the other guys acknowledge their housemate’s birthday?

Just HOW important was this, to make sure that celebrations happen for each person? It was glaringly obvious… celebrations were at the top of everyone’s list here. The idea of taking on that responsibility was overwhelming.

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How do neurotypical adults celebrate?  They call up friends, or friends call them. They’ve stayed in touch with friends from high school or college. They have gotten to know their neighbors socially, or their co-workers, or their church. They make plans.  They initiate.  They drive themselves home for Thanksgiving. There is an entire multi-generational community that sustains itself without too much effort.

But these guys, and many other independent adults with a disability… don’t.  They don’t initiate.  They don’t drive. They have rarely stayed in touch with school friends. It is difficult to pursue social relationships on their own, whether in the neighborhood or at the workplace. Their aging parents do their best to pick them up for family events and drive them back home again afterwards.  Sisters and brothers stay involved the best they can, but they are raising families of their own.

And for many many people, living independently in the community with a disability… they spend these special occasions alone.

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So why does this work here at the farm?

What we really DO have here is  a community… after 4 years of working together, 4 years of eating together, 4 years of living together or just being together for a few hours each week. That’s all it took.  Just real life…  and familiarity, true friendship and trust.

We have a community… and they want to CELEBRATE!

So we do, together.  ALL. THE. TIME.

Something else happened today, another incident that embodies the importance of the relationships that exist within the Juniper Hill community.

One of the guys kind of ruined the bowling event today, for most everyone there. It involved LOUD melting down, blaming and bullying of others.  Upon returning to the Hill, he disappeared for three hours.  Around the farm, into the woods, or up in the other house at the top of the hill…. he went somewhere (because on a farm, there is space. There is room to be alone, to have your quiet space, to reflect without interruption.  Another bonus of country life.)… The rest of us feasted on some pretty amazing leftovers for dinner, put up Christmas lights, and sang Christmas carols with YouTube videos.  Actually, I had absolutely nothing to do with the singing part, that was INITIATED (yes, they initiate now) by the others.

***(just a side note about having the word ‘bully’ in quotation marks.  This guy, this quotation marked ‘bully for an hour’ is the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate and generous guy you will ever meet.  But not during a meltdown. No one is. That’s why it is called a meltdown).

They were rocking the Christmas Spirit here… when the afternoon melt down **’bully’ returned.  And here’s how it all transpired….

No judgement.  No complaints.  No mention of the afternoon meltdown.  It was over, after all.

Instead, there was a pretty amazing welcoming reception because the leftovers that were the most coveted had been cooked by the ‘bully’ the day before.  Everyone raved about the ‘accidental chicken stew’ (he had intended to make soup!).  Then they served up leftover birthday cake, found enough space on the couches for everyone PLUS the dog… and watched three Christmas movies in a row.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t been wrong.  It wasn’t that it hadn’t been a big deal at the time it happened.  Feelings had been hurt, people had been made to feel uncomfortable.  Tomorrow, he’ll probably talk about it and think of some ways to possibly avoid it next time.

EVERYBODY here does this, or something like it.  There is such comfort in this knowledge. They all have their stuff (me too!) . We have all needed to be forgiven and accepted.  Regularly, actually. And everyone works hard every day to keep it together. Everyone is doing the best they can, and most of the time we all understand that…. three hours later.

We do community AND forgiveness, AND acceptance…. really really well here.

Dear Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services… Please don’t take this away from us, just because we live on a farm and not in what is considered a traditional ‘community’ setting.  Don’t change this life we have built here, just because most of the people here have autism and you think that we should be living closer to more non-autistic people.  This IS a community setting, and we do ‘community’ better than most anybody.

Please…

Rethink ‘Community’.

Opening Day of Winter Wednesday Bowling 3 weeks ago!

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Springtime Firsts

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First cookout tonight. First time eating dinner outside, first deviled eggs from our chickens. First bonfire, first roasting of marshmallows, first toad eating the insects at the porch light. First bright orange tulip this morning!  The predictability of each season is always a cause for celebration here. All house and car calendars have the pages turned by noon on the first of each month, and the day’s discussions are centered around the month to come. April 1st brings t-shirts and shorts, no matter the weather.

Tonight was joyous.

Springtime, food, fire and long time friends.

Oh, and marshmallow peeps.

We learned that in an emergency situation… when there is a bonfire and no marshmallows… that marshmallow peeps will do.

 First, we feasted on Patrick’s grilled steaks, pierogies, salad, and deviled eggs…look how yellow the yolks are from our chicken’s eggs!… We still have 4 dozen eggs from them in the fridge, and John Pags actually sold 2 dozen at work today! It’s their first year laying, they must be very excited.

DSC_0278Then Patrick, man of the evening, built us an amazing bonfire from all of the downed branches from the winter storms.  We have plenty of wood for the entire spring, summer and fall weekly bonfires. This called for a celebration!

DSC_0170I donated my hidden stash of Easter season marshmallow peeps, and we just so happened to have 4 Hershey chocolate bars in the closet.  No graham crackers, we improvised.  We collected roasting sticks, and got down to business.

 

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Andy doubles up

And Ray sharpened his stick…..

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Pete tried out roasting

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Ray.. still sharpening….

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Ray’s stick is almost sharp….

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Patrick made a great one… the sugar caramelizes it so nicely….

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After he dropped the first one…

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By the time his stick was sharp enough… Ray had almost missed the peeps.. but he got one last one…

and it was perfect….

and it was perfect….

I could end the story there… but there’s a little more….

People often ask us how we deal with alcohol, etc. here.  And I can honestly say that alcohol, with this crowd, so far is never an issue.  For various reasons, the guys are either adamantly against it because of experiences in their lives, can’t have it because of medications, or they are just plain moderate about it and barely interested. I, for one, look forward to having company over for dinner, when I can have a glass of wine without my housemates lecturing me!

Tonight, no company.  But it felt like a wine kind of night.  So after the peep roasting, I broke into the Sutter Home Chardonnay cooking wine (OK really, we buy little bottles of pretty decent wine for recipes) , brought out a hidden 6 pack of Vernor’s (really amazing) ginger ale, and had one bottle of Heineken saved for a special occasion. I gave them their choice.  They chose the ginger ale.  I chose the chardonnay.

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Happy Spring Everyone!

 

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All stories and pictures of the guys shared not only with their permission, but with their constant insistence on using every possible photo of them in each and every story on this blog… 

 

Happy New Year! Reflections on three years together

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The snow is falling softly at midnight and outside it is just stunning with the porch light reflecting on the white blanket covering our rolling hills.  Ray is making his way up the hill to his house with his dog, Hahli, who celebrated her first birthday yesterday.  Tomorrow we’ll be snowed in, here on Juniper Hill ….. and Andy and I will cross country ski across the fields, Brent will split lots and lots of wood and keep the fireplace going, and Oh Joy!  it is John’s night to cook and I am hoping for a repeat of the Beef Bourguignon that he made a few weeks ago. And maybe, just maybe… NO staff will be able to get here and it will be just us, all day. 

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Andy has been Special Olympics cross country skiing for years!

Our life sounds so idyllic… and actually, that first paragraph is pretty accurate. We have come a long way in three years!  But lest you think ‘Oh, that could never be my kid’ or… ‘it must be an easy group of guys’…. or… ‘they must have a lot more money than us’ or…. ‘my son just eats ramen, he would never be interested in cooking a meal’…. I’m also going to mention, of course,  the gritty details that go along with our idyllic existence here on the farm.

These days, it’s all about a comfort zone. An anchor.  Home. A safe place that we know, and trust. A place where familiar things happen over and over each day and week and month… with enough repetition so that when new and unexpected things occur, it’s not such a big deal because that comfort zone is there. The familiar people are there, the animals that we know, the same familiar food on the shelves, and that perfect size plate, spoon and glass that you like to use. It’s the comfort of being friends with your staff (even if the agency that sends them insists that you have a professional, not friendly, relationship.  Silly rule, yes.  More on that later). And it’s the comfort of being friends with your housemate’s staff, too.

It’s about routine.

It’s about weekday winter mornings when the fireplace is crackling and staff is arriving and everyone is getting up and ready for the day and the house is buzzing with familiar conversation and we’re talking about the dinner the night before and the leftovers are out for everyone to try.

It’s about that awesome time each weekday ~late-afternoon~ when staff leave and the screens go on …computer, television, IPAD, DS,…and the chips and popcorn fly off of the shelves .

It’s about the absolute best  after-dinner evenings anywhere. Music, The BigDSC_0108 Bang Theory, ice cream, slippers, tea, a cat on your lap and dogs sleeping at your feet.

And it’s especially about Saturday mornings. No staff.  Sleeping late.  Really late.  No responsibilities as long as the animals get fed. Nothing to think about or be reminded of until Monday morning.

It all sounds great… and it is, pretty much.  The comfort of the routine, the relationships, the extended Juniper Hill  family… it trumps the gritty stuff that happens.  It trumps the stuff that doesn’t happen also.

Because it is obvious to me, now, that being an adult with autism is just never easy. 

Not a day goes by for these guys, when they are not feeling discomfort, or frustration, or anxiety about something.

Yes, they are friends and they trust each other.  The familiarity is very comforting at this point. That does not mean, to them,  that the other’s voices are pleasant to listen to.  It does not mean that they  don’t say things to each other that are hurtful.  It does not mean that their taste in music and TV is acceptable to the others. It does not mean that they don’t find each other really annoying, at least sometime during the day. But having friends means compromising, and that can be SO difficult, how do we solve this?

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yes, everyone has their own favorite plate….

The staff are great, they have become part of our family and we love them.  It’s been a year now since the ‘new’ group of staff joined the staff who had been here since the beginning, and things have fallen together and the farm runs fairly smoothly.  But at 930 AM… when everyone is in the kitchen… (including the guys who live in the top house because they want to be eating breakfast where everyone else is)….when five staff have just shown up and are talking and moving around and in your way and bumping into you and going over what has to be done and LAUGHING and TALKING too loudly…  it’s JUST TOO MANY PEOPLE.   The guy’s funding works in a way that does not allow staff to work with more than one person at a time. Everyone needs ‘encouragement’ to get out of bed in the morning, and wants THEIR staff to be there   … how do we solve this?

The ‘system’ is supposedly set up to ‘support’ people with autism that live independently.  To support them in their dreams, their goals, their basic needs. In three years everyone here has come a long way in learning how to cook and make healthy ENOUGH choices, how to be organized and clean ENOUGH, how to be considerate ENOUGH  of others, how to think about finances ENOUGH to be kind of responsible….. but doesn’t this sound pretty much all ‘basic needs’?  What about dreams?  How does a support person make DREAMS happen?  What about love?  What about a life?  What about a bucket list?  It’s REALLY complicated, and REALLY hard to make happen for someone else….. how do we solve this?

How can you focus on dreams, when it takes ALL of your energy just to get through each day?

Basic needs…we’ll keep working on all that stuff as we go along.  And there’s more besides… there’s the continuing saga of the correct medication, or just having a job that you like, that you’ll keep, and that will pay.

The days are full here, and fulfilling.  Our family keeps growing… sometimes things happen and the living situation will change for someone …. so some of the guys have come and gone, and then come again… and gone again….

but always… they remain part of the family… and still remain part of the week’s activities, or the weekend excursions

and so the family grows…. and having this family, well, it makes our lives way more than ENOUGH.

But this coming year, in 2014…. we’re going to think about DREAMS….

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Effortless Inclusion……it could be. it should be.

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Imagine this.  A place where inclusion just happens.

I imagine it can be this way in elementary school classrooms, where children have not yet learned to judge those with differences. That would be beautiful to see!

I wish it worked as well for adults.  Perhaps it does, somewhere.  I see the media spreading the stories of high schools electing prom queens with disabilities, or football players with autism being allowed to play on the team for a day…. nice stories, but I always wonder what their lives are truly like, once they leave school.

In my 30 years of being intimately involved in the lives of many adults with disabilities, in several states from one coast to the other.. rarely have I seen real inclusion while out in the community. And I really really really want to see it, and I want to believe that it is happening.

Instead what I DO see is planned efforts to bring people with disabilities into the community.  In grocery stores.  In churches.  I see them with their support workers, walking around the mall. Present in the ‘community’ with typical people, living parallel lives.

and I see ‘typical people’ make real efforts to be extra friendly to them… for a little while.  Then they turn and go on with their conversations that they were having with their typical peers.  They leave work with their typical peers, they go to happy hour.  They have brunch with their peers at their house on a weekend. They call up and say ‘hey, want to go to the Y today?’.  They tell each other their secrets.

And too often, the person with the disability leaves their ‘inclusive’ community activity … their job, their school, their mall exercise….and goes home. They go home to their house with mom and dad, or their group home, or to their apartment where they live alone. After work they go to the YMCA program for people with disabilities.  Or their support worker will come over and take them to a movie. People from work don’t stop by or call.

Sorry, for being so cynical.   I’ve just met so many lonely people over the years.

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I am tired of defining ‘inclusion’ as the process of bringing the people with disabilities into a society that often is just not that interested.  It is such oversimplification to say the a person is ‘included’ just because they have spent their day alongside a typical person outside in the community.  Parallel lives, that is not inclusion.

I have seen true inclusion.  I see it every Wednesday actually.  Here on the farm, a place where several people who have autism live.  A place that borders on ‘congregate living’, which is supposedly a bad thing.  Just like all those other farms across the country that people with disabilities call their home,  that are being so severely criticized these days for supposedly being isolating, without choice,  and not inclusive.

These people here at Juniper Hill have shown me that there is another way , without really thinking about it at all.  And I think their way is better.

And all those typical people that really haven’t thought too much about including people with disabilities into their lives…. they are REALLY missing out!

So I say… Isn’t it time they came to US?

I say ‘US’, because most days I am immersed in a community of people who are not neurotypical.  And I say…. Lucky Me! It is my community as well as theirs, because having a disability is not a ticket into the club. These folks around me who happen to have a diagnosis… they are way more welcoming and willing to REALLY include all those ‘typical ‘ people into their lives.  There is no judgement here.  In fact, these people I am surrounded by, they spend very little time wishing they were ‘included’ in the typical community.  They don’t even notice who around them has a disability and who doesn’t.

They do not define people by their disability.

Today was our Wednesday Volunteer and Stop by the Farm Day, that we have every week. The way it works is this:  if you want to come to the farm and hang out you have two choices:

You can come at 1030 and work until lunch….  you cut sunflowers, fill birdfeeders, weed, feed animals, clean barns…. mow.  Then at lunchtime, everyone stops working, we gather in the kitchen to fix our plate of delicious food that Jose and Carin have prepared, and we go outside and sit at long picnic tables with our good friends…  and we talk about the day, what went on in our lives this week, the latest HALO/Lego news, the food, and the weather.

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If you did not show up to volunteer at 1030… you can still come. But you must bring your own lunch!  You can come to hang out, because sometimes after lunch we go for a hike… or play Bingo, or just sit around and tell stories.

Here is why this is inclusion..

There were over thirty people here today.  Seven of us live here.  Ten or so people who are part of the autism/disability community showed up to volunteer… so more than half of the people here had a diagnosis….. not that anyone here notices that about each other. Several people here were the staff people for these folks.  (Now, I know officially support people ‘don’t count’ as contributing to inclusion, because they are paid to be here.  But really, it depends on the support person.  Things especially change when you work at the same place for three years.  It’s kind of insulting to think that they don’t really count, these wonderful people who have become part of the family).

And who else was here with us today?

‘Uncle’ Harold and ‘Aunt’ Peggy, in their eighties, they are neighbors on the lane for the summer and doing work around the farm

Dylan, the farm hand who makes sure the animals all get fed correctly and that the weeding gets done (OK, he’s my son…)

Rebecca, who found us last year while looking for possibilities for community service.  Now she just comes because it’s great fun and folks,  and it’s the way she prefers to spend her free time on Wednesday mornings.

Ezra, who is a contractor who is tiling the bathrooms in the top house and who has gotten to know everyone and spends every lunch time with all of us.

Ari, Ezra’s 12 year old son who comes along with her and hangs out on the farm now.

Peyton, the Eagle Scout who is building a shed here as his project.

Peyton’s brother Mike, who helped him out today.

Alison... who is a neighbor that lives in the development across the road and works with one of the Juniper Hill guys on Fridays.  It was her day off  today, and she was home with her 7 year old son.  So she called us up and invited the whole crowd over to her pool.

So the entire crowd, full of Jose’s chili (now that I read this, it sounds a bit dangerous!), loaded into cars or walked over to Alison’s… and swam and sunbathed for two hours.

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Afterwards, Alison drove a couple of the Juniper Hill guys back home. Her 7 year old son Daniel had really taken to Michael (as many young Lego heads do)…. and Michael had invited him over here to see his Lego collection.  The two of them…. Michael (who is 22 years old and lives here) and Daniel… headed up to Mike’s house at the top of the hill while Alison caught me up on the stories of the day… (I did not go swimming… I grabbed the opportunity to be alone here in a quiet house after a very energetic morning of organized chaos with 30 people).

Michael and Daniel returned 20 minutes later, and Alison and young Daniel left.  Daniel went home with one of Michael’s Lego men, just because Michael loves to give presents to people.

And then everyone took a nap til dinner.

That’s a beautiful, friendly, INCLUSIVE day on the Hill.

Check out these other farm communities across the country where folks with autism live! Go visit!   Agricultural Communities for Adults with Autism

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From Tolerance to Acceptance…. getting through the rough parts

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EVERYTHING WORKS OUT IN THE END.  IF IT HASN’T WORKED OUT YET, THEN IT’S NOT THE END…. Tracy McMillan

It takes time… lots of time. It takes time to accept the fact that food has to be shared, that the TV has to be shared, that friends say hurtful things but often don’t know they are doing it, that friends say hurtful things knowingly but only are saying it because they are hurt and scared.  It takes time to learn to roll things off your shoulders, even if they really bother and annoy you… like being teased. or people in your personal space.  Or loud outbursts.  Or changes in plans. Or having to clean the bathroom, cause it feels like you do more work than everyone else because bathrooms are gross and should count three times as much as any other chore.

It takes time.. to get past TOLERANCE, and move into ACCEPTANCE.  There’s a big difference between the two! Often, the folks with autism get there ahead of their parents.

As a ‘housing counselor’ to parents who have taken the leap and helped their IMG_0932young family member move out on their own, I’ve witnessed the fear and frustration and confusion and uncertainty of whether or not it was the right thing to do.  Remaining at home was  safer for your adult child in lots of ways…it is just so scary to allow the rough parts to happen and not give up.  You know that there are probably going to be more rough times for awhile. And it was easier and less time consuming too, to just have them living at home.  No worrying about staff not showing up. Their clothes matched, their room was cleaner, they brushed their teeth better, and you could keep track of what they were eating. Really, is this worth it??

I began writing the Juniper Hill blog in the winter of 2012, and  my first post was about how much everyone was learning to accept each other, in just one year. Now, two and a half years since we started, there are still rough spots…. but the relationships have grown, and mellowed.  I am not a parent to any of the guys, and therefore have different feelings..  Less worry, less uncertainty.  But for me, I am quite sure. It is worth it.

Brent requested a family dinner at Red Lobster for his birthday last week… so we piled into two cars, made a grand entrance  and took over their largest table for two hours.  We had MORE FUN than anyone else in the restaurant that night, we were pretty sure that everyone wanted to be us.IMG_0931

We ordered fun drinks, our favorite seafood combinations, took silly phone pictures of ourselves, reminisced about past birthday celebrations, listened to everyone else’s requests for THEIR future birthdays …. and clapped to the Red Lobster birthday song for Brent.  And we ate cake, of course!

It didn’t start out like this, our life together.  Wow, not by a long shot.  And the meltdowns and frustrations and arguments still occur, but they’re different now.  They just don’t go as deep, are over more quickly, and are taken in stride by the other guys.  Two and a half years together, and I think the word here really is IMG_0948acceptance.  It just kind of happened…. over great dinners, fun trips to amazing places, cozy evenings by the fire, helping each other through frustrations, talking over problems, arguing about house rules, coming together and caring about each other in times like hurricanes and power outages, and celebrations of course, celebrations of accomplishments…. holidays… birthdays… milestones.

It was not always easy. There really  had to be lots of flexibility, and patience, and tolerance, and FAITH…to get through the rough parts. There has to be tolerance first, before you get to acceptance.  I’m not sure that it is ever easy, especially with autism.

First there was that fist fight on the deck that first year… and the time theIMG_0942 pitcher of iced tea got thrown all over everyone in anger (and panic no doubt)…. and the banging on the walls…holes and more holes… Hey!  that still happens!….. and the teasing over each others likes and dislikes and beliefs… and the stealing…. and the meltdown yelling at midnight… and the phone calls EVERY TIME I was out at night because somebody would always take it upon themselves to order the others around, and this was scary for the more submissive guys…

It’s difficult to write about negative things, it’s always easier to tell happy stories. I worry about discouraging people from taking the chance on independence.  But although these are true stories,  they are also HAPPY stories… just with some glitches….and somehow it puts the ‘lack of tooth brushing’  in perspective! (Keep reminding the staff, the tooth brushing will come).

And we love to tell the ‘pitcher of iced tea’ story… it’s become legend!

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The friendships are there. We really know how to have fun together…. and laugh….and we are one big kooky quirky eccentric amazing marvelous family…   It was great to be reminded of that, at Red Lobster last week.

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The importance of Waffles: a guide to making a happy home

homealoneLots of after-dinner belly laughing, whoops and hollers the other night, along with a few expletives directed at the bad guys… it was Home Alone 1 and 2, back to back.

All staff and visitors were gone after our volunteer’s ‘Opening Day’ on the farm and it had been our first sunny 80 degree day…. what better time to watch Christmas movies? Tired from the hot but awesome hike to the creek after working,  we foraged on lunch leftovers and sat down for a spontaneous movie night and miraculously, everyone actually agreed on Home Alone as being worth their time. Life was Good.

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The trail to ‘Dylan’s Creek’

Superstorm Sandy blew through our corner of Pennsylvania without much fanfare last fall.  But here on the Hill, the anticipation of Sandy for the entire week DSC_0062before she arrived was pure torture.  The best thing to come out of it (besides Brent’s amazing ‘Pocket Radio Hurricane Mobile’ that he made to distract himself from the weather channel), was my inspiration to blog here about the importance of weather and all those other seemingly harmless things that get in the way of an independent life and make things difficult for these guys.

But now, after a hike to the creek and spontaneous Home Alone togetherness along with last week’s 500th birthday party of the year (well, not really 500),  I’m thinking a blog about all those little things that make an independent life so much better is a must. You see, these guys here and others like them, the ‘in-betweeners’, can survive in the community living semi-independently. With a knowledge of basic safety and microwave use, and a staff person that comes in regularly…. these guys can survive with that.   But in order to thrive, we are finding that there are lots of little things each day that make life better.

Take waffles, for instance.  Not the frozen kind… although they should be on thewaffles1 list as well because a quick breakfast of toasted frozen waffles when you are in a rush is pretty good. No, I’m talking about the kind made from scratch, right out of Joy of Cooking..thick but light and fluffy, and golden brown… a bit crispy on the outside….mmmmmm.

It all started the time we had our friend Dude I’m an Aspie Matt Friedman over for a Sunday brunch of Chicken and Waffles.  It is just an awesome combination and we are all still talking about it.  So I started mixing up the waffle batter (minus the chicken) and leaving it in a bowl next to the waffle maker on saturdays…. (the ‘if you build it, they will come‘ kind of teaching model :)). It worked with Ray, he just started taking the time to cook them.  Around here, it only takes one person to start a trend.  Pretty quickly, ‘waffle envy‘ set in and everyone joined in.  Tonight when the leftover batter was gone, Jose said ‘These are much better than the ‘others frozen’. How do you make them?  I want to learn‘.  So I helped him step by step, wrote the recipe in the ‘NOTES’ on the house IPAD…. and I bet there’s going to be a lot of waffle batter in the fridge from now on.

Of course, you can learn to live independently without homemade waffles.  But why would you want to?! We started making a list of all the other things that add to our lives here, our ‘How-To’ Guide’ for other folks out there who are planning to live on their own someday (some of our list is more for the country living folks…there are different ones in the city!).  And here is our list below (starting with the obvious)

Holiday and birthday celebrations are a given, of course! Brent’s obsession with every holiday and Andy’s eye for important dates coming up on the calendar ensures a celebration for each and every one.  The crowd of friends DSC_0038who make it a habit to drop by on Wednesdays have pretty much all requested that their birthdays (and their staff’s) be celebrated as well. So we have been blowing out candles almost weekly all winter long this year. It’s just the best thing about Wednesdays !

A home where friends and neighbors drop by …now that spring has arrived, we look forward to Wednesdays when our friends come to volunteer… and the group continues to grow.

Fun trips to cool places.  Trips and leisure time activities off of the farm, with the Juniper Hill gang all together…  shared experiences truly build friendships.  We know that here.DSC_0357

Dessert ….. especially if it involves whipped cream and fruit served in stem glasses.

and Puppies… or other pets.  Nothing like puppy cuddles.  Now that Ray’s puppy Hahli is here, our Juniper Hill ‘village’ is helping to raise her together. Alice, our wonderful dog-like tuxedo cat, is always looking for a lap to nap on (which is very easy to find here.) and Bruno, our almost 30 year old cockatiel, always chimes in along with the dinner ruckus.

and there are lots of less obvious things that make us feel like we are Home:

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Andy keeps the bird feeders full

Bird-feeders (cardinals in the snow, squirrels doing acrobatics to steal the bird seed)

Bingo tournaments (with prizes from the dollar store)

House plants (especially if they flower, like Christmas cactus)

Your own seat at the dinner table

Your favorite fork, perfectly sized and bent (and favorite cup, knife, and spatula.. )

A Water Cooler… because for some reason, a water cooler makes it more fun to drink water.

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Rubber boots (to walk in the creek)

a House IPAD  …this needs it’s own blog post, so many uses!  Fun apps (Math Bingo!), email, facebook, YouTube, Music, detailed chore lists for staff to use when teaching skills, privacy internet (explanation?  some other time), and now waffle recipes at the tip of your finger.  Wow.

Photos on the fridge … family pictures, pets, our trips

Bus charts.. and other charts.  Visual lists on the fridge to check off.  Brent’s bus chart keeps him focused on going to work and helps him to board the bus, even when there is a new bus driver.

Christmas lights all year long.. just one strand?… OK so we changed the color and added red chili peppers so they don’t look Christmasy…  it sure makes it cozy in the evening. We don’t think it is tacky.

Little pads of paper or notebooks.. and pens…lots… because everyone likes to make lists, draw, and write down facts (that they are reading off the IPAD)

Chickens.  Highly underrated, entertaining creatures in your yard, especially the little bantams.  Fresh eggs every morning.  (well, probably will not be high on most people’s list,  not really at home in the city!)

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Saturday morning cartoons, forever….

Bacon.  self-explanatory.

Frozen strawberries in the freezer… so you can always make a smoothie.

Spontaneous movie nights.  A VHS collection and player (I don’t know why. but it’s true).  and also Netflix streaming all kinds of movies to please everyone… from Abbott and Costello to Anime.

TV Blankets…. to curl up with on cozy winter evenings.  Preferably a Brent’s Blanket .

Tray Tables… cause sometimes you eat dinner in front of the TV.

Picnic Tables… cause it’s great to eat outside in the summer.

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A Grill.. even a small one.  for the hotdogs and hamburgers that you are going to eat at the picnic table.

A Crockpot.  Throw in meat and vegetables at noon and cook it ’til dinner, and the house smells delicious all day.

A Vegetable garden.  with tomatoes, and potatoes.

Night lights, and a guy with OCD who turns them on at dusk, as well as turning on a light in each main room in the evening (and the Christmas light strand of course!) … absolutely wonderful to come home to after work.  Without him, the guys would sit in complete darkness with just the light from the television.  Really.

A Pond, with fish.  We have been working on this for two years, soon to be finished. We will let you know how nice it makes us feel, soon.

A Fireplace and someone who loves to build fires every night... and a place to sit by it with a book.

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A Fireplace that streams on Netflix. Apparently almost as good as the real thing around here.  Check it out!

Lots of tea choices, for a hot cup of tea on cozy winter evenings in front of the Netflix  or real fireplace. Especially Tension Tamer, Sleepytime, Peppermint and KAVA Stress Relief.

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and especially Music... really cozy when it comes from three directions in the house all at the same time… heavy metal from the basement, Christian rock in Spanish from upstairs, classical or jazz ‘soft music’  from the living room when it’s Andy’s turn for the IPAD.

We could keep going…

As time goes by  here on the Hill, with the same guys and staff becoming a family after two and a half years, new traditions/habits/routines continue to evolve. We realize them in retrospect!

So go out and buy a waffle maker. Here is our recipe (simplified from Joy of Cooking): Turn on the wafflemaker. Put 2 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons sugar in a bowl  and MIX.   Break 3 eggs into center of dry ingredients and MIX (just eggs), then MIX 2 cups of milk in with eggs, then MIX everything together.  Add 1/2 stick of melted butter and you guessed it… MIX. Put a cup of batter on the pre-heated waffle maker, and set the timer for 5 minutes.  If you don’t have syrup, yogurt or jelly works too!

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Dylan’s Creek

Feeling A.A.L.I.V.E.

DSC_0052Last weekend we visited the Wolf Sanctuary of PA  for the Full Moon Tour …  listened to wolf lore by moonlight, warmed our cold feet by a huge campfire, got to know 40 rescued wolves, gazed into their yellow eyes and heard their lonely howls.  It was under 20 degrees F, but we walked around for two hours and Jose still wanted to keep asking questions as we were leaving. We warmed up at Cousin’s Pizza at 1030 at night and told our favorite wolf stories.

Our trip to New York City last month was a beautiful unseasonably warm and sunny day strolling the pedestrian street at Times Square, eating lunch at the HardRock cafe, and seeing a ‘sensory friendly’ production of ‘elf’ off Broadway. We checked out the New Year’s ball that we had just watched on New Year’s Eve, does it sit up there all year long?!  and we watched the skaters at Rockefeller Center before we boarded our own private, quiet and not too crowded bus back home to Pennsylvania.

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Rockefeller Center, New York City

This past year we have had box seats at minor league baseball games (box seats IMG_0639so we can walk around, have our own bathroom, eat Crab Fries and be somewhat flappy without bothering others)….. watched the spectacular Disney on Ice, spent a week at the beach, seen the most amazing jelly fish at the Baltimore Aquarium, met the HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS!, gone to the China Buffet once a month or so where we can eat lots of fried dumplings and make ice cream sundaes with unlimited whipped cream for dessert…… and amazingly we got to geek out at the New York City Comicon where we talked Anime/LEGO/ Ninja Turtles non-stop for 6 hours.

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We’ve learned to tolerate … maybe even enjoy….each other in the van on the way to events; gotten comfortable in restaurants; learned to make it through (without meltdowns) the dreaded ‘getting ready and loading up’ period before each excursion, learned that new places and faces don’t have to be scary, and formed close, trusting relationships with our dear A.A.L.I.V.E. family and friends who we see on many of our trips.

Priceless…

And just how do the guys get to do this on their $698 dollars a month?

A.A.L.I.V.E.  Adults with Autism Living with Independence, Value and Esteem.

Money is tight for many people who have a disability and who are trying to create a fulfilling, productive, independent life for themselves.  Even when you’ve been able to put some money aside for a fun trip, it is difficult to structure an outing to meet the needs of folks with severe sensory issues and a fear of new environments. It’s a strange, scary, noisy, crowded world out there!

WE ARE SO LUCKY to live in southeastern Pennsylvania!

Colleen, Frank and Brian Foti, Founders of A.A.L.I.V.E.

Colleen, Frank and Brian Foti, Founders of A.A.L.I.V.E.

The A.A.L.I.V.E.organization has evolved into an amazing resource for adults with autism … and it’s such a GOOD IDEA… to structure experiences for folks like the Juniper Hill guys so that they can venture out of their comfort zone and see and do amazing things.

You COMPLETE us, A.A.L.I.V.E….

THANK YOU!

Friday Night Funnies with a bunch of autistic guys

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Jose Jalapeno on a stick

I sat by the fireplace listening tonight… quietly… but laughing laughing laughing inside, at times just marvelling at the magic… as I wished, as always, that I could record the after-dinner conversations going on in the room. Some of the conversations were an exchange between two friends, some were a give and take with characters not visible to me, and some were just musings, no audience necessary.

These guys are FUNNY.  Deliberately funny.  They play off of each other like a seasoned comedy team.  They take each other’s quirks and they run with them.  They accept the jokes about their own quirks that others are making, and they make them even funnier.  They interject pop culture humor, so SouthPark and Family Guy and Jeff Dunham are often partners in their act.  (…Jose aka Jose Jalapeno on a Stick thinks his nickname is pretty cool.) And when the comedy routine takes a turn for the intellectual as Ray expounds on a joke in excruciating detail, everyone yells NO MORE, RAY!! and the comedic exchange returns to the ridiculous.

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There’s magic here. We love and accept some of the guy’s imaginary friends.  The imaginary friends are funny too.  They have names and voices and places they like to sit or sleep and rules they think we should all follow and lots and lots of things that they do that are WRONG and it’s a good thing the imaginary friends can’t really get in trouble because EVERYONE would get them back for it.

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and I just can’t imagine anyone else’s dinnertime being this much fun.

Of course… things are not always this way.  Sometimes a glance at the wrong instant becomes a serious insult, or the timing of a joke sends anxiety through the roof.

But there is something about Friday nights.

Maybe it is the anticipation of a lazy Saturday morning with bacon… and NO STAFF in the house.

Or the complete and utter shutdown after a week of intense thinking about how to load a dishwasher … or worrying how not to drink more than your share of DSC_0192orange juice … or the guilt about how you should save money towards something practical when all you want to do is coerce your support staff to drive to WalMArt IMMEDIATELY because that $5 in change in your pocket needs to be spent on a LEGO or there is no future and you can’t relax until that money is GONE.

OHHHHH the pressure!

DEEP BREATH.  It’s Friday night. All those things you tried to learn this week, already a distant memory.  Let the dishes pile up.  Bring on the OJ.

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Fear and the fragile friendship

New York ComicCon 2012

Michael called tonight… thankfully at a very reasonable 730 PM, not midnight.  He touched base with Ray, as he does almost every day (too often at midnight).  They share the day’s HALO/Bionicle news, the latest on the Disney Star Wars’ purchase, and the plan for the next get-together, as distant as it might be.

On the Farm

Michael and Ray have been friends for four years.  They met by chance at the Goshen Country Fair, where Michael and his family volunteer each year.  At the time, Ray was living independently in the same town. They struck up a conversation, found they had many interests in common, were able to plan and get together on Friday nights for the next two years…and the rest is history. Michael lived here at the Hill for a year while he was finishing up his transition program in high school, and now lives back home with his family about 40 minutes away though he makes it down to the farm on weekends regularly for HALO marathons….

These two best friends share their interests, their possessions, often their money, and their secrets… and they happen to also share an autism diagnosis. They help each other through their sensitivities, annoying habits and meltdowns, and almost always remain true to the other, no matter how disruptive they become.  They have two very very different dispositions, yet it works….  They are a couple of lucky guys, and they know it.  Many folks, with or without a diagnosis, could benefit from their recipe for true friendship.

What is this recipe exactly?  Patience, trust, familiarity, tolerance, compatibility, convenience…. and TIME……all of the qualities that one would guess….. plus a healthy dose of luck and  ‘perfect timing’ no doubt.

Now if only we could replicate this recipe again and again.

Too often, what I see with folks on the spectrum and other disabilities is a desire for friendship, but an overwhelming fear of intimacy, change, and sensory overload. Confusion about what friendship is, and what expectations are involved. An ambivalence about leaving that comfort zone where one can immerse themselves in special interests without interruption…. and a need to be alone to control all input. Sometimes it can be just a simple preference for convenience over company.  The fear of disappointing, and disappointment. The fear of the unknown. The fear of vulnerability.

FEAR.  That’s a big one.

Things don’t always go as smoothly as Ray and Michael, when forming a new friendship.  And this week, I have a new respect and appreciation for the bond that they share, because I tried to help a couple of other guys get started with a new friendship.

Check out this wonderful movie about a friendship like this…
http://www.youtube.com/movie?v=tDJZO-QUS2A&feature=mv_sr

Several months ago, nurturing these types of friendships became my livelihood, when I went back to helping others …. young folks just like Ray and Michael and the Juniper Hill guys….  set up independent living in the community.  It’s not so difficult to find a place for people to rent, or to make sure they have the supports needed (help with cooking, cleaning, budgeting)….. or even to find two or three people who want to live in the same place at the same time. Sounds complicated?  It’s the easy part.

After the furniture is moved in and the kitchen is stocked, real life begins and new housemates unfamiliar with each other have to spend lots of time together. It’s not so difficult, when the support people are there too.  Helping with decisions about what to eat for dinner, where to move the couch, what to watch on TV.  Helping with facilitating conversation, especially. But then the support people leave, and the chores are done, and no one is reminding anyone of what ‘s next.

It’s scary, but it’s fun.   It’s confusing….but it’s exciting.  Its empowering, but at the same time old insecurities surface.  It’s evolving, and it takes time… lots of time… for trust to develop.

And sometimes before that trust develops,… the whole thing just blows up. And then you have to help them pick up the pieces, and figure out how to help them move on. And that has been my life these past two weeks.

Ray and Michael, you sure made this look easy.  Keep taking care of each other, you are truly lucky.

Autism and the extraordinary power of peers

Andy’s Chicken Cordon Bleu

Motivation…. it started out as competition, before they cared.

Brent cooked independently …. and got lots of attention from visitors for it.  The other guys started cooking.

Ray brought home a paycheck and bought himself his own junk food and CD’s.  The other guys requested that their support workers take them job hunting.

Jose made a conscious effort to change his eating habits and lost a ton of weight…. everyone who knew him before showered him with compliments.  The guys started dropping waist sizes and talking about food choices at dinner .

Andy volunteers at the library and checks out books that he reads each night  after dinner.  The others wanted their own pile of library books.

Before they really cared about each other, they just wanted what the others had. Their motivation began as a competition… for attention, for money, for books. It got them off the couch temporarily, but that type of motivation just doesn’t go very deep.  The anxiety, anger, melt-downs, sensitivities, intolerance, mistrust… still front and center.  They just had more books.

Ray is working on his art and is showing it off at market this week

Almost two years ago…the guys started out as a group of pudgy overweight, unmotivated, anxiety-ridden gang of couch potatoes.  Except Brent… older than the others by at least 10 years….healthy, fit, and motivated to work from sun-up to sundown, had hobbies and filled his leisure time…  He has lived here on the farm for 18 years.

Brent has most of the same difficulties as the others …. anxiety and melt-downs, sensitivities and intolerance.  But he doesn’t have the mistrust that the others have, and his behaviors are rarely directed towards the guys.   He really likes his housemates, and he was the first to show that he cared, no matter how much the other guys were acting out.

Brent is also quiet…. he sits at dinner listening, rarely contributing to conversation.  Everyone else battles to get a word in. And every other guy has SOMETHING about him that annoys the others. But Brent?… there appears to be nothing about him that is annoying to the other guys.  So Brent became the one that everyone bonded with first.  Coming to his defense when it seemed like he might need it, always watching out for him and making sure he got his share…..they TRUSTED him.

But they also respected him.

They see how hard he works, without complaining … ever.  They can see that he doesn’t need to be begged, prodded or lectured to about adult responsibilities in a household.  They see that when the arguments are about whose dishes are in the sink and who should load them, he just gets up and does it.  And they see that he earns  a decent amount of money each week because of the extra work he does.

They also see that he keeps most of his personal ‘stim-stuff’ to himself when he is out in the community.  No one forces that issue. He wants certain things from those he comes in contact with… so he makes an effort to understand the people he meets and has learned to express his needs in a way that can be understood.  His desires are rarely ‘typical’…..they usually involve checking out the heating systems in people’s houses, or asking questions about their car keys.  But he has learned to do it in a way that endears himself to almost everyone he meets.. EVERYONE loves Brent.

Brent has been selling blankets every week at the farmer’s market

His maturity and work ethic shine in everything Brent does.  He makes the other guys want to better themselves.

There is a turning point in young adulthood, with or without a disability.  A point at which your motivation changes from doing something because someone older expects you to, to acting on something just because it’s the right thing to do.

A few weeks ago, Jose started getting up in the morning on his own, giving himself an hour before his staff showed up. He started making his own coffee, and real homemade oatmeal from scratch (with frozen strawberries blended in yummm), the way he has been taught over the past year.  and when he is finished now…. he loads his dishes and checks to see if the dishwasher needs to be run, and TURNS IT ON if it needs it.

He turns on the dishwasher now, just because it needs to be run. Seems like a small thing, right?

It’s not.

Jose cooks lunch for all of the volunteers every Wednesday

Jose’s Birthday September 2010