Category Archives: Employment and Autism

The Pursuit of Happiness: Juniper Hill Style

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Ray was gone for three hours in the adjacent woods one afternoon this week. Three hours!  I was just about to go looking for him when he came trudging

Ray's pond in bloom, 2013

Ray’s pond in bloom, 2013

back in rubber boots, cart full of interesting stream rocks to put around his pond, net in hand, and his container with two crayfish and a salamander.  He added the creatures to his pond that we finished last summer, and told us his ‘fish stories’.

Michael called this week, excited about his new place… asking advice about laundry, budgeting, relationships, and planning our summer trips.

John, chef extraordinaire,  sat for an hour yesterday reading recipes from a new Mexican Cookbook and talking about ‘catering’ a private party for a friend.

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Brent’s potato harvest 2013

Brent and Pete rototilled and planted their own bed of potatoes at the top house on Thursday, even though we have a big bed of potatoes planted for everyone down here at the main house.  They just wanted their own patch of potatoes.

And Andy, well he changed his view this week. Each evening he sits outside on HIS chair at HIS table on the patio before dinner, quietly contemplating, with his various personal trinkets and pebble piles on the little tile table. For over a year now, he has been sitting facing the side yard where the angora rabbits are.  And this week, he rearranged and changed his seat to watch the evening sky and forested hills over the sunflower field… it really is pretty this time of year. He came in first and announced it. ‘I want a different view, I am rearranging the patio OK?’

These are the kind of things happy people do, I think.  Right?

I mean, these guys do struggle with anxiety and sensitivities and impulse control. They never have enough spending money.  They complain about their housemates.  They don’t have jobs that give them enough hours or jobs that are steady. They all have dreams that have not yet been met.

But I really believe that they are happy. There is always something that they are unhappy about each day. But lots of times if asked, they say they are happy with their lives. And happy people, they care about the view.

I’ve given this a lot of thought this past month, because we were asked to speak at a conference about ‘happiness’.  And this is what I truly feel, so I’m sticking to it.. for now! dff-logo Last Saturday the guys and I presented at the  ‘Autism and The Pursuit of Happiness’ conference given by Dragonfly Forest, a camp for children with autism and other disabilities.  When they called us a few months ago and asked if we would all ‘present’, I hesitated.  Well, the guys don’t actually … ‘present’,  I tried to explain. But I thought about it and decided to give it a shot.  I wasn’t sure how we would all have on our happy faces for that day…  but that’s not really what happiness is all about anyways, right?

So I came up with a powerpoint presentation highlighting the things that I think have contributed to the guy’s ‘life attitude’, be it happy or not, and piled everyone into the van for the ride early on a Saturday morning (a miracle in itself). We were lucky to have our own corner in a quiet side room, with a table on which we could put our important ‘stuff’ during the conference.  Michael arrived and announced that there was NO WAY he was going to stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and talk.  Rebecca wasn’t feeling 100%.  Andy had stayed up all night and didn’t come at all. Brent brought a blanket to sell, and that was all he was concerned about.  And Ray brought Lego creations.  He was ready and willing to ‘present’ his Lego stories. I told them all that I would pay them 10 bucks if they would at least sit in the room while I talked, that it would be nice for folks to see who they were and maybe ask a few questions and they could answer if they felt like talking.  So they all decided to make the effort and go outside of their comfort zone for an hour.. for 10 bucks.

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It. was. amazing.  It was either the most outlandish/uncomfortable presentation for the audience… or the most amazing /best ride ever.  The guys mostly did it themselves… with me just clicking through each powerpoint slide and saying a few words before the guys cut in and told everyone the story behind each slide. Michael, who had intended to leave as soon as he arrived because he ‘was not going to stand up and talk in front of people’… jumped up at the first slide to talk about the photo and how it was one from the first year we were together … and he was the one who led everyone else, standing the whole time in the front of the room leading the conversation.  Really. I loved it.  These guys rock.

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They reminisced about good times.  They were unorthodox.  They argued. In the middle of the presentation, they excused themselves and went outside to work out their differences and came back in five minutes best friends. They talked over each other.  They laughed with each other. And they were occasionally R-rated… talked openly about sexuality, bullying, abuse, and living in a residential facility.  Rambled on and on in detail about Lego creations and why each part went where. And they told the story of their lives together the past four years, talking off of the slides that had the memories…  the trips we have taken, the meals they’ve learned to cook, our animals, selling sunflowers at the Farmer’s Market, and their staff, their wonderful support people.

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And every so often during the presentation, Brent would raise his hand.  And then he would come up to the front of the room and stand next to Michael… holding the blanket that he was crocheting….  and he would say ‘I making blanket IMG_1375bigger’ and then look at me… and I would tell the audience, each time, that Brent crochets blankets and sells them, and he wanted everyone to know that he had one for sale for $35 at the table in the hallway.

And of course, after the presentation someone bought the blanket.

It was a great day. I am very very happy.

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Andy’s view

 

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Standing in the way of independence: it isn’t really the money.

funding‘Our son can’t live on his own, he doesn’t have government money for supports’  Our daughter doesn’t get enough in Social Security to be independent’ ‘They’ve cut funding for disabilities’ again, we are on the waiting list, our son is still living at home’  Funding. Funding. Funding.

The autism blogs and parent listservs are filled with information about transition and adulthood and the financial burdens that will come along with the desire to live an independent life.  In this economic climate, government funding is not prepared to support the overwhelming numbers of autistic young people coming of age. The unemployment of people with autism is higher than any other disability. So how will all of these young adults, these inbetweeners’ who could learn to live independently with some supports….ever be able to afford to live on their own, out of their parent’s house?

house_keysIt is a legitimate concern of course, and money will be tight.  But given a certain set of circumstances, it is not impossible to make ends meet.  Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is almost $700/month and many people with autism will qualify for it. Sharing your home with someone will help to lower your rent. You qualify for SNAP, or food stamps…. around $200 a month if most of your income is from your SSI.  Sometimes your county will step up and award some limited dollars to pay for supports to come in and help a few hours a week. There are jobs out there… maybe not very many that will entirely support an independent life, but jobs that pay enough for some spending money after most of your SSI goes towards bills.

I really don’t think that money and funding are the main impediments to independent housing. They’re just the first consideration……. and just the tip of the iceberg.

What I really wanted to talk about here are all those other things…..

Here is my own personal ‘Top Ten (plus nine)’ list of impediments, after 14 years of helping people with disabilities live on their own.

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Thunderstorms 

Support People who don’t show up

Transportation

Lost Mail

Support People who watch TV, text and read their email and are basically glorified babysitters

Not knowing what to do with leisure time

Junk Food

Too Much Food

Video Games

Support people who take you to the mall but don’t notice that there is no food in the house, a week’s worth of dirty dishes in the sink, and a negative balance in your checking account.

Landlords who don’t fix things

Your relationship with your housemate

Your Parent’s relationship with your Housemate’s parents

Medication..remembering to take them… refusing to take them… or improperly prescribed.

Broken Toilets, Clogged Drains, Lost Keys, Broken Dishwashers, Broken Washing Machines and Dryers

Porn. and mystery charges on the Comcast bill. Hundreds of dollars worth before you thought to put a PIN number in.

Self Control.. (with food and video games and porn)

Loneliness

Thunderstorms, really.

Take thunderstorms.  Alone in a house, your house.  Lightening and thunder happening seconds apart.. that means it’s close.  The power is out and you don’t know when it will come back on. What if it NEVER comes back on?

Or unopened mail.  or confusing mail.  or misplaced mail.  When you are living with supports such as SSI or food stamps, or prescriptions, or an ISP… you get lots of mail and it requires lots of RESPONSES in a timely manner or you will lose those benefits.

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Food.  Eating too much of it.  Eating junk food… only.  It’s all just right there in front of you in the grocery store… and you have $100 in food stamps on your card.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Support People. Relationships. Medication.  and Porn.  These all deserve their very own blog post….   Better save these for next time.

and with all of these things to worry about, do I really believe this can be done?

ABSOLUTELY!

Waiting for Hurricane Sandy

Waiting for Hurricane Sandy

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

The WC Press features Ray for Autism Awareness Month

   

     Ray works every Monday and Friday, cleaning two different gyms in West Chester PA.   He takes public transportation home on his own …we actually have a bus line that comes all the way out here to rural southern Chester County…. and gets dropped off in West Grove (about 6 minutes away from the farm).  He deposits his check each Friday in his local bank before getting picked up by someone to take him the last leg home to Juniper Hill.

He was featured in this month’s WC Press, a West Chester magazine.  Check it out!  Yay Ray!!

Click on this link to read Ray’s article!

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!!

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.