Category Archives: Adults with Autism

Holidays and autism: free-to-be age inappropriate

Yesterday morning, Brent arrived at the main house at 700 AM to search for hidden easter eggs, something he has done with our family for 25 years.  He wore bunny ears, and found every egg but one (hard-boiled, and yet to be found, ugh) of the 3 dozen we colored the evening before.  His giant Easter basket (another 25 year old tradition) contained all the usual chocolate eggs and bunnies, jolly rancher jelly beans, and a few kitschy plastic Easter toys… but the best part these days are the things that he buys himself, wraps up, and gives to us the week before, to make sure the ‘easter bunny’ puts them in his basket.

Brent as a Hershey’s Kiss

As he has gotten older, he has taken matters into his own hands, refusing to take any chances that the holidays won’t happen the way he wants them to. He spent many years tormented with the possibility that something would happen before the big day came…. Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s, Halloween, May 10 (his birthday).  For a month leading up to any event, his anxiety was through the roof and he would melt down at the smallest disappointment. Not any more.  He has figured out that if he just does it all himself, he doesn’t have to depend on any of the rest of us to do it right.

He buys himself birthday presents and Christmas presents, wraps everything up, and hands them to people weeks before the actual day, and instructs them to give them to him on the holiday itself. It’s not that we would ever forget a present for Brent on any of these occasions, EVERYONE that knows Brent loves to get him things on holidays… he gets so much pleasure out of a box of Lucky Charms cereal, or a ball of yarn or a key to your car.

But he just has to be SURE. He remembers a time when he was told that holidays were for children, that he was getting too old to trick or treat…. he remembers a time when he heard rumors that Santa and the Easter Bunny were not REAL, and he doesn’t want those times to ever come back.

Twenty five or so years ago….. as a young and inexperienced student of ‘behavior modification’ for people with intellectual disabilities, I was trained to teach ‘QUIET HANDS’. …  and ‘age-appropriate’ behavior…. to facilitate ‘fitting in’ with society.  I didn’t question this, back then. (Oh yes, I question it, now.)

Dylan and Brent 2008

It was my son, Dylan, who made sure, long ago, that we preserved these holiday traditions for Brent.

Brent joined our family in 1984 when he was 16 years old, and by the time Dylan was born… almost 22 years ago… I had already begun to try and make Brent ‘understand’ that he was an adult (he was 21) and that adults celebrate holidays differently from children. There were a few years before Dylan knew what holidays were all about, and those years were frustrating for Brent.

Not to worry, those days are gone forever.

It began with Christmas Eve, with Dylan and Brent putting on their Christmas pajamas and listening to Grandma Bobbie read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ before they went upstairs to Dylan’s bedroom. Brent moved to the spare bed in Dylan’s room for the night.  They knew the rules… they had to wait until 630AM before they could go downstairs to see if Santa had come.  Sometimes they would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night together, anyways.

Christmas 1998

But it was Halloween where we REALLY got creative.  It was fine for a few years when Dylan was really young… but there came a time when I just couldn’t let Brent trick or treat in the community anymore.  You can not imagine how scary he is dressed up as a clown.  Clowns are creepy anyways, but with a stiff autistic gait and no response when spoken to….

So we solved this problem. Brilliantly, I might say.  We had two houses on our lane (and now we have three houses!  last year was great fun!).  Each house has 4-5 doors to the outside, counting the garage, basements, playroom, etc. Brent gets dressed up in his costume (actually, Brent wears his costume for at least three days, everywhere he goes ).  We stay inside the house, and Brent runs around outside of the house knocking on each door and exclaiming TRICK OR TREAT! when we answer with a bowl of candy.  So now Brent gets to Trick or Treat at 13-14 doors, and ends up with a bag full of Halloween candy.  Last year, the other guys on the Hill wouldn’t join him, they thought it was childish.  Guess what?  This year they did.

And as for all of us boring neurotypicals who tried to end this childish behavior?  We are embracing Brent holidays…. and now we get dressed up in our costumes and run around on the INSIDE of the houses…and change our wigs and hats and masks for each door that Brent knocks on.

And yes, each Christmas Eve Brent still packs his overnight bag and walks next

Brent and Dylan, Christmas 2012

Brent and Dylan, Christmas 2012

door to our family home where Dylan is…. to spend Christmas Eve in Dylan’s room.  And my absolute favorite moment of the year is STILL the time that comes on Christmas Eve after Brent reads us ‘The Night Before Christmas’ in honor of Grandma Bobbie… and he and Dylan go upstairs in their Christmas pajamas, and Dylan tucks Brent in and reminds him to wake him up at 630AM (Dylan needs a little help getting out of bed that early now)… so that they can go downstairs and sit together by the light of the Christmas tree lights…. playing with that kitschy singing toy Santa that Brent had on his Christmas list.

 

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So, about this autism and empathy thing….

People with autism lack empathy.

Really?? ….I’m confused. Do the people who say this actually live with a person with autism… do they spend a lot of time getting to know people on the spectrum?  Have they experienced sad events together with their friends who are autistic?

I have.  Many many times over the years.  I’ve seen their anguish when a friend or animal is sick or hurting…. and I’ve seen how quickly they respond when a stranger needs help.  I see …and yes, I can feel…their pain when they have unknowingly hurt someone’s feelings or disappointed someone that they care about. I hear their apologies, and those apologies come from a place so deep and sincere that I expect that any second they will shut down completely out of sheer empathy OVERLOAD.

Lack empathy?  Not a chance.  But I do understand why so many neurotypical folks PERCEIVE a lack of empathy in their students or acquaintances with autism.

The other night around 10… Ray and Michael grabbed the lantern and headed up the hill to Ray’s house.  Down at the main house, I was checking Ray’s mouse live- trap, since we have had an influx of cute little meadow mice lately with the coming of spring.  I opened it up, and one of those cute little meadow mice jumped out of the trap and into the sleeve of my shirt and ran up my arm and onto my stomach… under my shirt. Now… I am not afraid of mice. Or snakes, spiders, rats or scorpions.  I live with them, Ray collects pets like this. I like all these critters almost as much as Ray does.

courtesy of bluebison.net

But it caught me by surprise and I screamed… LOUDLY.  and CONTINUOUSLY for what seemed  a very long time… because I could not get the thing out of my shirt and it was running around on my body.  Andy and Jose just watched me jumping around… and afterwards, Andy says ‘WOW! You scream like a girl!’

Ten minutes later, Ray and Michael return, carrying LEGOS of course.  Still excited, Jose and Andy tell the mouse story…. and Michael says…..

‘we heard you screaming all the way up the hill when we were walking up.  It sounded like you were really hurt, or like something was attacking you’

and I said ‘then why didn’t you run back?’

and Michael says..’ well  we were pretty intent on finding this LEGO piece that we were missing.  We’re back now.’

Uhh OK.

This is not lack of empathy.  It’s something else, hyper focus …or something.  To their credit in this particular case, I truly believe that sometimes the guys here assume that I am some kind of super human that can not be physically hurt… similar to a Bionicle or HALO individual perhaps, guys?…. (perhaps it is my ‘Bossy Big Sister‘ New Yorker attitude).

I am neurotypical but have lived with adults on the spectrum for 30 years. This kind of focus is going on all the time here.   Often, a problem will arise around a disruption of focus…of hobbies… or computers, televisions, or music…. something in the present environment that has to be shared with others.  And when this kind of focus is interrupted, these guys often have little tolerance or understanding of the person who is interrupting them.

I have tried to get them to explain to me how they are feeling, but I’ve never once succeeded at the time it is happening. It is during these instances that you see another side of these generally kind and gentle, compassionate guys. No matter how many times they are asked ‘how would YOU feel if …… ‘   or… ‘don’t you think it’s time for someone else to get a chance, you’ve had your chance for 4 hours’… there’s just ALWAYS a reason (actually, many reasons) why they shouldn’t have been interrupted because what they were doing was very important. So sure, in that particular moment, there is not much empathy… anywhere.

but by the next day…. they always rationally discuss possible solutions to the problem… and they apologize to everyone involved.

So am I missing something here?  Is this what is meant by ‘lacking empathy’?  I respectfully disagree.

April is Autism Awareness month, and tomorrow is April 2, World Autism Awareness Day.  The numbers are out and autism is now 1 in 88 births… we are past ‘awareness’.  Isn’t it time it became ‘Autism Appreciation and Acceptance’  instead?

And that is my rant for the month.

The border collie puppies visit the Hill

P.S. And speaking of empathy… in case you missed it, the family dog passed away recently, and I blogged about it here

The Loss of a Pet

Living on a farm… death happens.  

It happens fairly often, actually.  We have five new baby chicks, and one of them drowned in the waterer last week.  One night a raccoon got into the adult hens, killed one of them and left most of its body.  Ray has lost pet mice, tropical fish, and a very long-lived crayfish.  Last year, our old goat passed away. 

But none of these events were anything like losing the family dog over Christmas week this year.  Soon afterwards, I wrote the story of his last days because the guys’ reactions were so moving.  Here it is below.

Nemo passed away yesterday.  Our old, smelly, incontinent, hairless chihuahua mutt who lived in a crate in our dining room for the past year.  No one knows how old he really was… he had been rescued from a dark basement, starving and without water… and he became part of the dog family on the hill after we read his sad story on Craigslist.

His basement experience led him to drink as much water as he could find…. hence the incontinence when the gallon of liquid moved through his tiny body.

So he lived in the crate….

But a funny thing happened. This smelly and quite unattractive creature somehow won the hearts of these guys here on the Hill. Jose always entered the house calling to Nemo, so he could hear him howl.  Michael lifted him out of the crate each evening to sit in  the rocking chair with him and tell him stories of the day. The dining room is the center of social activity, and everyone was in tune with Nemo’s needs.  ‘Nemo do you need water?’ ‘Nemo needs to go out…..get him outside quick!’ ‘Where’s Nemo, he’s been outside too long’. ‘He’s cold’.  ‘He’s hot’. ‘He’s still hungry we need to feed him more’. ‘Give him chicken’.  ‘Nemo’s at the door, someone LET HIM IN!!!!!’

Six guys with social issues, coming together over an unlikely mascot.

We all watched Nemo fade away these past weeks; he was treated with such gentleness and compassion.  And when it came time to say goodbye, everyone came together to prepare his gravesite, our first here at the house.  The guys dug a hole together, taking turns…. the goats and pigs watching from the other side of the fence.  We told our favorite Nemo stories and laid him gently down.

Then Jose howled.  And we all joined in.

And today, the day after, the guys are still howling… and visiting Nemo’s grave.  And saying how much they miss him… and giving each other HUGS for comfort.

Genuine empathy transcends all social missteps.  Social issues on hold for now.

Nemo and Kit 2010

Autism and agricultural communities: a reason for keeping it small

So much talk this week about agricultural communities and autism… the autism blogs and listservs are buzzing about the  FRED conference that just happened in California (Farms and Ranches Enabling people with Disabilities).  There has been an overwhelming response to the conference nationwide.  It is so inspiring to see some of these long-term communities continue to grow and succeed… check out these agricultural communities of adults with autism.  Families are talking about working together with others to create their own farm for their family members.  Again and again, the talk ends up focusing on the lack of funding, the lack of support for projects like these from the very organizations that should be helping.

For those of us whose lives are affected by autism, we ‘get’ why the farmstead model is such a good option when thinking about a life of independence for many adults on the spectrum.  Tranquility.  SPACE.  Animals.  Nature.  SPACE.  The freedom to be who you are … free to hoot, jump, pace, flap, stim, and talk talk talk …. without judgement.  The freedom to CHOOSE when and how you want to interact with others.  Life on a farm does not have to be isolating, there can be many opportunities for socializing with very little effort.  But having that CHOICE to be alone when there is a need to recharge without interaction with others… that choice is priceless for many with autism.

But since the 1970’s, the movement has been towards non-congregate living for people with disabilities.  It became the accepted belief that a life mainstreamed into society was best… that the ‘least restrictive’ environment was an environment where the individual with a disability was part of a community that consisted of mainly non-disabled individuals. The pendulum had swung all the way over to that other side, and now for many years the government and other funding streams have not wanted to consider new ‘congregate’ settings (settings where non-related people live together)  as viable options for independent living.

My own personal (and very controversial) belief is that this has been extremely over-simplified… after 35 plus years working in the disability field and 15  years in housing…. I have seen many many desperately lonely people living in the ‘community’ with few friends or connections and whose families have long since let them go.  On the other hand, some of the happiest people with disabilities that I have met either live or work in fairly large congregate settings with their best friends. It really depends on the specific nature of the ‘community’ or the ‘congregate setting’, and the quality of the support people in each. It is an oversimplification to call one situation ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.

The guys at Juniper Hill are very attached to one another, yet also very different from each other;  they share only limited interests.  And they miss each other whenever they are apart. They are also attached to the 10 or so people who come regularly to visit or help out on the farm.  They all like each other because they are wonderfully kind, interesting people, not because they are autistic.  What right do we have, as a society, to tell them that they can’t live together just because they share a diagnosis?

courtesy of Handi-crafters

At any rate, it has become evident that creating an independent living situation with as little assistance from the government as possible may be the most practical and sustainable path for the majority of families right now.  With six guys living in close proximity here on the Hill, it borders on ‘congregate living’ in some eyes, and chances are we would have to argue this point if asking for government support for the project.  Our original plan here on Juniper Hill….. to create a working farm that would provide employment and a meaningful day for a number of individuals…. has now evolved into a simple independent living situation where the people living here just  rent their home and pay most of their bills with their social security checks.  They are learning to work on a farm, and this work will at least provide them with their spending money, and hopefully more, eventually.  It is a replicable model for many families…. and that was our goal.

We haven’t done any fundraising (yet) and the farm is not a licensed facility.  However, these guys are lucky in that they do have some waiver funding that provides the support people that come in at an average of 15 hours a week for each guy. It’s not very much but it gets the shopping, laundry, cooking and cleaning done and leaves time for volunteer jobs and even some leisurely trips to the nearby University town and weekly stops at the local library. A couple of times a month, the  AALIVE organization provides some amazing fun trips. And the guy’s social circle is continually growing, with friends dropping by to help out on the farm, just because they like being here. We recently registered as a host farm with  WWOOF, an organization that links volunteers to working opportunities on farms. We see this as an excellent way to provide some of the  supports for individuals who lack funding, while at the same time providing a valuable and enriching experience for volunteers. In just two weeks, we already have a local WWOOF volunteer coming weekly, and three more scheduled for long-term stays here.

So we think that we will just stay this size…. there is still so much room for growth in other ways, and that is enough.  And we are really looking forward to sharing ideas and guiding other families through this process.  Life is Good… here on the Hill!

Entrepreneurship and Autism: goats, sunflowers and giant blankets

Cashmere Cashmere everywhere…on our clothes and in our hair…..

It’s almost time!  Yesterday, clumps of cashmere came off into our hands as we reached out for Johnny CASHmere while feeding the barn animals.  Johnny the goat has the most beautiful thick white coat of curly cashmere, and he was the first to begin shedding last year. We were unprepared for the copious amounts of billowing cashmere in the air for two weeks last spring, as we had understood that we had 6 whole months to gather the cashmere.. not so! Although cashmere goats might begin to shed in December, it is barely noticeable until it all jumps ship within a couple of short weeks in mid March. If you blink your eyes, or if it rains a lot during that time, you’ll miss it!

So we are determined to gather the cashmere this year, before it lands on the fences and branches of the trees, or in the nests of house wrens and chickadees. We have two goat stanchions now, thanks to the handiwork of Brent and Mindy….  the stanchion holds the goat still while it is groomed.  We offer them treats for standing still for us, and we’ll comb them until the cashmere is all safe inside ziplock bags.

Brent in the workshop building a goat stanchion

We have big plans for Johnny’s and the rest of the goat’s cashmere this year! We have been experimenting with felting fiber this past winter, and we are finding that the cashmere felts nicely as a first layer with a top layer of our alpaca fiber.  How does it sound to have a felted alpaca hat with an inside layer of cashmere against your temples?  We think it sounds wonderful. So along with the hats, the guys are experimenting with felted water bottle bags, felted soaps, and felted phone cases.  Add that to our 20 varieties of sunflowers, some hand-built wren bird-houses, and a variety of hot and spicy homegrown peppers, and we ‘re sure to have a fun season at local grower’s markets!

Our first attempt at a felted phone case!

Living independently with autism isn’t just about learning to cook and get along with housemates.  The employment piece is one of the most difficult to figure out.  Paying bills uses up most of the guy’s monthly social security checks, so it sure would be nice to have some spending money! Plus, it just feels good to have a job.  Unemployment among adults on the spectrum is really high.  Navigating social situations…. overcoming sensory issues … finding a job and succeeding in an interview… and convincing an employer that you are worth taking a chance on,   in spite of your differences.  It’s not easy.

No, these are not our hats. We will pick one style and give it a try!

So we decided to take the entrepreneurial approach here on the farm. Last year we grew a small field of sunflowers… 20 different varieties, about a thousand flowers.  The guys were introduced to dirt… on their hands, on their clothes… and they were introduced to sweat!… it is really humid here in Pennsylvania in the summer.  and ….  they did OK!  We cleared fields, formed raised beds, and planted  seeds in rows.  We were rewarded with a beautiful field of sunflowers, and we harvested them, cut off the leaves, put them in buckets and delivered them to friends and local businesses.

We learned that EVERYONE loves sunflowers.  Sunflowers are easy to grow.   Sunflowers are easy to harvest.  We were convinced.  This year, we’ll try succession planting so they bloom over the entire growing season, and we are tripling the size of the fields.

There are several local grower’s markets that we will approach and ask to be vendors.  The sunflowers will be our main product, but we have a good strong start on the fiber items as well. Setting up a table at a market and selling our items and meeting people is actually what the guys look forward to the most… they love to tell their stories. It’s taken a year or so for the guys to embrace this idea…. this was not the dream job for most of them.  But watching Brent and Ray, who love being outdoors, work hard and make handfuls of cash on delivery days last summer… well that was all it took!  We shall see what this year brings, but right now we are all chomping at the bit to get started.

Brent with his new blankets ready for the fair tomorrow!

Presenting at the Reinventing Quality Conference in Baltimore, with the 'Lucky Charms' blanket

We can’t end a post on entrepreneurs without talking about our most amazing entrepreneur here at Juniper Hill…. our wonderful hardworking friend, Brent. Brent has been crocheting blankets for over twenty years.  Originally, he just wanted to crochet blankets for people who would trade him for car keys, his true obsession.  But these last few years, Brent has discovered that he can actually sell his blankets for money , and it has inspired him to work harder and choose his colors more deliberately.  You can learn about Brent on his Facebook page,  Blankets by Brent.  Last year, Brent presented at the Reinventing Quality Conference in Baltimore, MD.  And tomorrow, March 3rd, Brent will be selling his blankets at the ‘Celebrate Differences Film Festival and Art Exhibit’ in Media, PA. He just crocheted six blankets in less than 3 weeks, and they are just gorgeous. He is quite excited!  Although the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not anyone will actually buy the blankets is overwhelming at times for him, he has learned, through constant reminding, that there will be another fair along soon, and more folks to buy his blankets… and a space at a Grower’s Market this spring!

Update** Brent sold every one of his blankets at the fair!  Thanks to all who came out today!!

Social Group.. Support Group… awww let’s just hang out

Jose and his other girl, Kit

No plan, no formal discussion, no agenda… just food…seems to be a fairly successful recipe for a get-together so far.  We had our third ‘hang-out’ day today at Juniper Hill, and it felt like a great day.  Seven or so very local folks on the spectrum, along with a parent.. stopped by for the afternoon, and it’s feeling more and more comfortable each time. The front half of the house now becomes the HALO/Lego area … with the pool table completely covered with figures, and surrounded by guys discussing the latest releases.  Others in the room sit on comfortable couches talking …… not everyone finds HALO fascinating!

Outside, some folks take walks to visit with the goats, the rabbits, the pot-bellied pigs, or to get more SPACE

In the dining room, the parents gather at the table and talk about navigating the ‘system’ after age 21 and finding support. Young people come in and out as they need to, when the Lego room starts to buzz with too much conversation… or when they just need to touch base with a parent…. or to sit by the fire with a book for awhile.

and in the kitchen… the island is filled with home made mac and cheese, fruit salads, biscuits, veggies and dip, homemade chocolate chip cookies… and more.  Everyone  forages for food when they feel like it, there is not a set ‘meal time’.

and it just works

We didn’t plan to not have a plan… it is just evolving this way.  Each month we say ‘let’s sit and talk about what we want from this group’ and ‘let’s go around and introduce ourselves and find out what other’s interests are’… and it never happens.  People show up and go about their business, and each time the young people spend more time together, away from the dining room and their parents.

So, it feels like it’s working… and relationships are happening without any extra forced effort on our part… so why mess with it?  This is what we hoped for… so

let’s just hang out

Afterwards, when everyone had left and the Juniper Hill guys had scattered to the far corners of the Hill to recharge after a very social day… I sat down to relax and read my email and had a good laugh at this new post by  Dude I’m an Aspie, with his version of a ‘support group’… click on the yellow link below, and check it out!

Dude I’m an Aspie

Recharging

Cooking and autism: If you want to build a ship…..

‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea’ Antoine de Saint-Exupery (author of The Little Prince).  

There are often a lot of sensory issues that come with a diagnosis of autism.  Here on Juniper Hill, we have sensitivities to loud noises, sensitivities to the texture of food, sensitivities to voice pitch, sensitivities to materials from which clothes are made.  Sensitivities to certain words…WAIT, MAYBE, I DON’T KNOW….. to car engines revving, to water touching skin, to meat with bones, to high pitched voices and to total silence. To bright lights, to strong smells, to other people’s dirty dishes. Oregano.  Salt.  Pepper. ONIONS! The size of the pieces of food matters, and how soft, how crunchy, how sweet, how tart.  How hot.  How cold.

When the guys first moved in, they didn’t care if we ate meals together, and they didn’t care to experiment with unfamiliar foods.  They just wanted to eat what was safe and get it over with. The support people did most of the cooking while the guys pitched in when they could stand it. Mealtimes involved a well-balanced array of foods that sat on the table while the guys made their ramen, opened their cold cans of spaghetti-os, and poured frosted flakes. As the NT (neurotypical) housemate, I held in my ‘Jewish mother’  type tendencies and didn’t force the issue. Well, maybe just a little bit!  ‘Here, you like pasta, this is the same as those spaghetti-o’s, why don’t you try it?’  ‘Here, this chicken has no bones, no spices, no sauce… sure, go ahead and put ranch dressing on it, that’s fine.’

And then, 10 minutes after dinner the guys would come back into the kitchen and make popcorn. Then again an hour later.

As time went on, mealtimes became more popular.  It was the time to get-together and talk about the day and share stories.  We started making fancy-but -not-scary desserts.  There was so little junk food in the house anymore, because the bulk of the food money went towards meals and some healthier snacks, and the leftover spending money that the guys kept was now spent on other things.  Given their choice, it evolved from a giant bottle of blue soda and Doritos to a new HALO figure, Starbucks, or a music CD.  The spaghetti-o’s and ramen were still included in the weekly shopping, but often they were eaten in the first two days.  Without the constant supply of Doritos, the guys were hungrier and more open to eating what was cooked already.

Patrick's first lasagna

Then…. we got a weekly meal schedule, the guys made the request.  Brent had been cooking on his own for years, and he started independently making meals for everyone.  It all started with ‘Pierogie casserole’.  He read a recipe for it off of the Pierogie package, and the guys went wild for it.  Pierogies, tomato sauce, pepperoni and mozzarella cheese….. devoured in minutes. Brent got lots of attention for his creation, and all of a sudden the guys wanted to make a meal to share too.

Everyone signed up for a day of the week. The support people jumped right in and started researching recipes off the internet.  Lots of cheese, lots of pasta.  Variations of rice or pasta, chicken breast, cheese, cans of cream of mushroom or celery soup… and maybe (hopefully!) a vegetable. There was salad available every night, and with Ranch dressing, it began to taste OK. A few times,  we would make brave attempts to eat Ray’s concoctions that involved something scary from the ocean (eel, squid, mussels).  But eventually, Ray settled into shrimp dishes to satisfy his seafood cravings, and that was fine with everyone.

These days, the monthly menu looks creative and tasty.  Jose contributes food with a Mexican flair, and believe it or not everyone has come to appreciate beans and salsa.  Tortillas are now a staple in the house.  Pat is the casserole king, and this week he made chicken pot pie from scratch.  He and Jay-R came up with the idea of using frozen biscuits as the top cover and pizza dough for the bottom… it was amazing. Everyone now knows how to make homemade pizza, and on Saturday nights they are in the kitchen together, rolling out pizza dough (bought from the grocery store, a ball of dough ready to roll) without any support people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the guys all know to cut onions REALLY TINY so they disappear when cooked… they know to always have a boneless chicken breast for Ray if they are baking chicken, Jose knows to make half the beans refried and half left whole,  because some can’t have the pieces of their food blended.   All cut meat has to be approximately an inch square…not too big, not too small. No ground beef. Potatoes can’t be mashed, so they too, get cut in one inch squares. No pepper, no oregano during cooking, but the center of the dinner table is full of condiments so that each person’s food has the precise amount added to suit him. It wasn’t really a big deal to consider food sensitivities while cooking… and now it is second nature to make the meat the perfect size.  And sometimes… the guys will still go for the ramen during dinner.  But they always sit down together,  everyone always compliments the cook, and they are so impressed with themselves that they are pretty sure they’re ready to publish their own cookbook….

and the Ranch dressing?  Still there at center stage, helping broccoli and other questionables make it into the main course.

So thank you, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince.  Thank you for your suggestion that the love of something is what inspires learning. Not only are these guys developing a love of real food, but they love creating a meal, they love the ceremony of a meal, and they love making their friends happy…. 

Now we just need a way to inspire them to do the dishes……

These potatoes? Too big... they will be cut in half at least one more time.

Living Independently with Supports, part 3: Happy support people

(Want to know what happened to Part 2?  Check out the ‘Facts and Figures’ page of this blog…. You’ll find lots of specific information on getting started!)

Patrick with JR on our fall crabbing trip

Today was the monthly meeting of the Juniper Hill gang… all of those people that hang out here on a regular basis…  the guys plus their support people.  Ed came early to bake chocolate chip cookies with Andy, it looks like it is a new tradition for meetings except they are going to have to double the recipe, at least!

Ed and Andy in the kitchen... it's potato soup night!

JR and Patrick brought in wood, Brent and Mindy built a fire. Liz and Ray planned tonight’s dinner while waiting for everyone to get their tea, coffee, and glasses of milk (to go with the cookies, of course!).  We talked about time sheets, dinner schedules,  and this blog… the guys are anxious to get their own page here, to tell their story and decorate it with pictures that they like (HALO and LEGO,  Eagles, Phillies and Flyers, dogs and insects, their favorite music) with the help of their support people.

Liz and Ray (and Adam the Cashmere goat) working on the pasture fence

Support people, they are the reason this whole project is working.  Everyone here is excited.  The room buzzed with conversation as we all planned the farm season coming up this spring.  Ezra and Brent made the first alpaca felt purses and cell phone holders this week, and now we can’t stop thinking about market days coming up! Patrick and JR want to learn to make wooden frames for Ray’s scientific illustrations he is working on,  and they’ll be planting hot peppers to sell… Noel and Jose planned a thank-you box of goodies from the Dollar Store, for volunteers that will come to help out at the farm.

Support people, the backbone of any independent living situation for individuals like the guys here at Juniper Hill.  ‘It takes a village’… and we have one, here on the Hill.  How? Why? We talk about it every meeting, because that is what we need to figure out.  We need to be able to tell other families:  ‘do this, and you will have support people who care, who love coming to spend time with the person they are paid to help, who take initiative, will figure out what is needed and then do it.  Do this, and you’ll have people who will stick it out even when the person they support has a really really difficult day  ‘

Jose, with support person Carin, tries to beat Brent at UNO. Probably won't happen.

Happy support people means happy guys…Here is a list of things we have come up with…..that help keep support people inspired

1. A salary of $15 an hour or more….the guy’s families here work hard to make it happen… and  the support workers can depend on the hours that they are promised.  It’s the bottom line, people have to support themselves. There is nothing more important than this one, no matter how much we talk about other perks of the job.

2.  There is a house/farm schedule to work with, and a weekly plan is laid out.  The guys have agreed to cook once a week for each other, so the support people are becoming cooks as well (it often doesn’t start out this way). The guys want to be paid for doing work around the farm and they need assistance, so the support people have a list of chores to work from. Laundry and cleaning have to be done weekly. Things just have to be done when living on your own. For support people, it’s good to be busy.

3. Several of the guys have made a commitment to volunteer activities in the community that they enjoy, and the support people have to make sure it happens.. and it’s fun!

4. The houses feel like home.  They are comfortable and welcoming. There’s music going, Kit the chihuahua is running around looking for attention, Alice the cat has sneaked inside, it smells like beef stew or chocolate chip cookies.

5. The guys are friends and care about each other.  They like being together and doing chores together. Long ago, our support people learned to care about the guys they were working with, and now they care about the other guys too.  It’s definitely a team effort, and that feels good.

6.  Extra credit: We have really cool animals,  and we grow sunflowers.  Hard to beat that! We are starting a new life all together,  working on creating something meaningful ….and there is much to look forward to!

(This is an added bonus here… we are not saying that you have to have adorable potbellied pigs for your support people to be happy… but it helps!)

And that’s about it.

But where did these people come from?  How do you find them?

Once you have registered with your appropriate Human Services agency (see the Facts and Figures page of this blog for step by step instructions), you will meet with a supports coordinator who will (hopefully) explain clearly your options and the services available. If you are lucky enough to be awarded waiver funding,  you will have a list of provider agencies to pick from. Interview a few!  Make sure that you ask what their salary range is for the various services… especially community integration, personal assistance, and home and community habilitation.  If they pay their employees $9.oo an hour, you are going to have difficulty getting (and keeping) good support people.   Ask your supports coordinator about FISCAL AGENTS, and if they have them in your state.  They are available for some waivers and services in Pennsylvania.

Mindy is teaching Brent how to loom hats, hopefully he will eventually have them as a market item along with his blankets!

The people who work here are from five different agencies. The guys and their families, with the help of their supports coordinators, hired them.  Each guy acts as an individual, and there is no interaction among the different agencies that provide support here. Two of the guys here have traditional ‘provider agencies’ who send support people when they are needed, and the guys work with them to see if they are a good ‘fit’.  In those cases, a few people have come and gone over the past year for one reason or another.

For the other guys here, they are hired by the families themselves, through a fiscal agent …. check out the two that we use here in Chester County PA, it can be a valuable option for some families:

Agency with Choice    http://www.arcofchestercounty.org/awc.html   

Acumen   https://www.acumenfiscalagent.com/index.aspx.     

I’ll go into detail about fiscal agents on another post, it’s important to educate yourself on this one!   Here is link to a comprehensive report explaining how it works: http://www.cmu.cc/docs/pa-guide-to-pds.pdf  (it is a 2008 publication, so some info might be outdated).  Basically, you (or a family member) can become the managing employer of your own supports and hire who you want.  The fiscal agent is the intermediary that actually sends the paycheck.    For the guys here that use them, the support people were found by word-of-mouth, either by the guy’s families or by the people working here already. When you find dependable, responsible people with a good work ethic…. a fiscal agent is a great way to go.

Fiscal agents work really well in a place like Juniper Hill,  a group situation where flexibility is always needed.  Three of the guys use the same fiscal agent, so the support workers (who are all employees of Agency with Choice)  can help out the other guys if needed.  They don’t double up, but they can fill in for that other support person if they are not working with another guy at that time.  It benefits both parties!

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Johnny, our farmer neighbor, keeps us supplied with hay and wood

The meeting went on for more than an hour, and we devoured the chocolate chip cookies, a pot of coffee and almost a quart of milk….and then a knock came on the front door.  Johnny, the wonderful neighbor and farmer next door, had a giant bale of hay for us and needed help getting it into the barn. Everyone scattered immediately… Mindy and Brent got grain to distract the goats, JR directed the tractor through the yard, Jose held the gate open for Johnny, and Patrick herded in the escaped piglets…

Great ending to a meeting!  

Springtime in February walk on the Hill, Feb 1 2012... Andy, Mindy, Noel (who also works with our friend Chelsea and they come for visits), and JR

Living Independently with Supports…setting it up step by step, part 1.

Andy's first independent grocery shopping choices

Living independently….they make it look easy, the guys here on the Hill.  The rent gets paid, the pantry is full, and several times a week support people show up to make sure individual goals are being met…. goals that are developing self-sufficiency as well as goals that are just plain fun.  Everyone here seems to be enjoying a rich, rewarding, healthy and safe lifestyle.  So why isn’t this model more common, you ask?  Why don’t more families just find a place to rent and call a moving company?

Ask Patrick’s mom just how easy this is.  Ask how many phone calls she has made this week, how many emails she has written…  To Social Security, or the Department of Public Welfare, or the Pennsylvania Department of Long Term Living,  or the provider agency that sends his support people,  or the supports coordinator that oversees the provider agency that sends the support people.  Ask her how many times she’s made the half-hour drive to the Hill… to bring medication, or a pair of snow boots, or to pick up Patrick for a family birthday party.

Getting set up is definitely not easy, not when it is absolutely necessary to have both Social Security benefits as well as 15 hours minimum of support coming in. Navigating the systems involved can be so overwhelming… many individuals and their families never get past just thinking about the possibility of an independent life. It shouldn’t be this difficult, but it is.

Andy's second attempt (oh well, we kept the cheez whiz and marshmallows too!)

But it can be done!… it’s not easy, but it is absolutely possible for many many people with autism and other disabilities who have not yet taken the first step. It takes the good part of a year sometimes, to get things into place.  But it does happen.  And it already has here… for Ray, Brent, Jose, and Andy.

The funding and support programs for these four guys are in place and functioning, with relatively little maintenance at this point.  They are set up with social security benefits, government waiver funding that provides supports, medical assistance, dependable support people, food stamps, some part time employment, volunteer  positions in the community, and snow boots.  Well, maybe not the snow boots, because they still seem to lose things quite often.

So coming next in Part 2 is a step by step guide of ‘nuts and bolts’ instructions on how to set up an independent living situation for a person with autism or intellectual disability in the state of Pennsylvania.  Once this is all done, there’s still the actual ‘getting along with housemates, new routines, and making my own lunch when I don’t want to’ part, but those stories will follow in good time.

The In-betweeners: Diagnosed with autism at an early age and ready for independence

Andy and Ray.... Clothes designer meets scorpion enthusiast

We are the In-Betweeners, here at Juniper Hill.  Diagnosed at an early age, we never really had that expectation of ‘fitting in’ with neuro-typical peers, like so many of the newly diagnosed adults on the spectrum had…. those adults who live independently and who are so articulate about how it feels to be autistic, and  lonely, an outcast in society.  That group of people who are educating the general public at an amazing rate….. blogging, Facebook, television, conference presenters, authors, even American Idol.   Our education was geared toward a person with a disability from the start, and we learned early on that we were different.

But we are not really that classic ‘Rain-Man’ image of an adult with autism either, a person in need of complete support and supervision who also struggles with speech and understanding others.

We are in between.  And there are lots and lots of us, many still at home with our families but with the ability to someday live independently, with some support. We may not care that much about cleanliness, but we know how to take care of our personal hygiene and we do it, either independently or with reminders.  We can use microwaves, and make sandwiches, we could learn how to do our laundry…. or get around in a community and take public transportation.  We can read. Really well, in fact. Brilliantly actually, for many of us.  And we are experts on our passions.  Our passions drive us, so much so that we are way more interested in discussing, thinking about and living them…. than we are interested in talking about our autism. The autism?  We take that for granted at this point.

But Dinosaurs?  Insects?  Dog Breeds? Designing clothes? Crocheting giant blankets? Automobiles and keys?  Maps? HALO?  80’s music?  Now that’s interesting!

Brent... with an average blanket