Category Archives: inclusion

From housing model to home: five years later.

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Through the grove beside the pasture, a well-worn path now leads down the hill to Home

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and another worn footpath, now the shortcut to Ray, Pete and Brent’s house


In the summer of 2010, we painted the newly rehabbed 4 bedroom house a
forest green. We fenced two acres of pasture and moved in two alpacas, five cashmere goats and a bunch of chickens. Over the next 10 months we got to know eight (yes 8!) pretty cool guys and their families. 

Five years later, and these same eight guys are still around.  There are five guys living here at a time now, here on the Hill.. in two different houses.  All eight of the guys have spent time living with each other here.  Some have left… and returned, left again… or moved to their own apartments, or gone home with family for health reasons. But still… on Wednesdays and birthdays, most of the original 8 guys are together. Celebrating milestones together, working together (well, a little!), going on trips together, hanging out on market day in the Juniper Hill booth together, talking together, eating together, just being good friends… together.

June 2015 Celebrating Patrick's one year anniversary in his own apartment!

June 2015 Celebrating Patrick’s one year anniversary living in his own apartment!

The ease of their interactions is obvious… how sensitive they are to each other’s moods, and how much they care if someone is not having a good day. The support they give to each other, the shared humor, shared food, and shared history.  The brotherly bickering and how quickly it gets resolved. The level of confident independence at which they move through their day … with each other for company and support.

Five years ago, we began as a Housing Model.  We are a family now, and Juniper Hill Farms is a Home. It’s different, and it comes with complications.

For the last five years, the slide below has been the final point made in the Juniper Hill Farms presentations that I’ve done for family groups, housing, or autism organizations.

‘Our goal is to help other families feel capable of creating a living situation like this for their family member’

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Seriously, ‘Our‘ goal?  Wait, let me check with the guys.  Hmmm I don’t think so.

It was, and still is one of MY goals. Learning from these guys about life? It’s still exciting every single day.  I laugh, I get frustrated, I philosophize, I have fun.  Every experience with them shapes the story of how to create a life of ‘inter’dependence and happiness for an adult with autism… a story that will hopefully encourage other families to give it a try. In five years, the learning curve has not leveled off, not in the least. It continues to show the increasing complexity of an independent life with autism, and how rich that life can be for them as well as for everyone around them who is lucky enough to be along for the ride.

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Celebrating Michael’s birthday (really Ray is having fun!)

The guys, however? They now have other interests. And priorities.They really just want to get on with their lives.

We had so many visitors that first year.  We had an open bedroom so that we could welcome interested guys who were looking for more independence and who wanted to see what that felt like for a week or two, or a month or two. Its scary to just make a move… much easier to just test the waters. So just come to Juniper Hill to try it out!  It was a really good idea, at the time.

We also had families and groups of people from related fields visiting to see what we were doing.  The guys were used to strangers coming in and out.

and actually … well, they were strangers as well!

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Check out this year’s new variety… Greenburst!

Brand new to the living situation, we all did the best we could. There were not a lot of established routines that first year… everything was a trial run and we worked out kinks every day.  We learned how to take care of animals and we tried to grow sunflowers. We had dinner together every night, went on fun trips together, argued and worked things out. We became friends with the staff, and with each other. Semi-organized chaos, that first year or two.

Then slowly, things began to change.

First the comfort level, then the trust, began to build.  That’s when everyone started to get their own ideas about things.  They started talking to each other, instead of just to the staff and me.  They made their own plans.

Fast forward five years. It’s now September, 2015!

IMG_4048These days, what we have on ‘the Hill’ is  community.  And we have a home, and a family. It is not that different from most other people’s homes. Everyone here has a life that involves getting out into the wider community every day.. where they work, volunteer, exercise, shop and eat.  Just like most people.  They come home each day and sit around the dinner table and shoot the sh*t. They grab a bowl of ice cream, their IPad, or ‘their’ seat in front of the TV and watch movies.  Or documentaries.  Or animated funny stuff with raunchy jokes. On weekends they sleep late…. hang out with the animals… take care of their home…walk to the creek. Just like most people.

So… what’s the problem?

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yes.. this is the staff schedule in the house.

Try to imagine people showing up in your kitchen at 9 in the morning. Every. Single. Day. 9AM. When you just want to grab a glass of orange juice in your Hello Kitty pajama sweat pants and go back to bed and read a book  (hey, there is more than just one of us with Hello Kitty pajamas..) We love the staff.  Just not always at 9AM.

And how about MEETINGS??  Looking forward to coming home from work in mid-afternoon and taking a nap on the couch?  There are five people who are a part of your housemate’s ‘team’ sitting on it already. YOUR couch, not theirs.

and WEDNESDAYS!!  When our best friends come over,  and our former housemates.  and each person’s staff.  and people doing community service.  and volunteers. and everyone is trying to talk at once and the house is not big enough and people are trying to cook lunch and staff are catching up with each other and both bathrooms are OCCUPIED at the same time and no one really feels like ‘volunteering’ anymore because they just want to hang out. and EAT. No wonder it’s sometimes the day of meltdowns and hiding in bedrooms. But.. we LOVE Wednesdays too. Wednesdays are how we BECAME this community. (and we do get some sunflowers planted…. and watered…).

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Meet Ethan! He came to visit the farm with his parents this summer, and stayed to try it out for a few months. He is now well known as ‘the chicken guy’ at the market. And he is going to settle in with us for the winter, at least!

Families call regularly and ask to visit the farm. There are so many young people on the spectrum who are coming of age and want to have a life independent from their parents.  There are also so many aging parents who wonder what plans to make for their adult child. Farm life sounds good to many of them, and most people want to see it for themselves.

So we are planning better now.  Most meetings can happen at Starbucks (better coffee too), or the supports coordinator’s office, or outside on the picnic table.  (Anyplace but the couch.  Or the kitchen table!)

and visitors.. feel free to come on Wednesdays… we will feed you! and occasionally during the week we will sneak you in when it’s quiet.  Just don’t come on the weekends, that’s pajamas time.

IMG_5363We look ‘bigger’ on the internet… on this blog, our Facebook page, our YouTube and Instagram.  We look ‘bigger’ in pictures.. pictures of sunflowers, and pictures of great food, pictures of our booth at the weekly farmers market, and group photos with our animals and friends.

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5 years later, and the furniture is looking well used. This is where Andy’s heel sits.

Really… we are just a home.  Not so different from yours. It gets kind of confusing  to entertain so much of the time.

and…well…. we don’t always want to dust. That’s all.

See you on…… Wednesdays!

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Yesterday, this black swallowtail butterfly emerged from its cocoon. We have been watching it all week! It seemed like a good metaphor for this post.

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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!

Pumpkin time at Juniper Hill Farms!

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We are having some gloriously sunny early fall days …

Check out our ‘Feeling like Fall’ video!

 

 

We need to talk about staff. Be careful what you wish for!

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BINGO! Brent won a divided dinner plate… (his preferred way to set up his meals)

It was a great day last Wednesday, our weekly get-together with friends day.  It was a Hang Out Winter Wednesday (‘hang out’… because we are definitely NOT getting any work done these days !) and we played Bingo with our friends.  New prizes from the Dollar Store made it a hopping competitive afternoon, and everyone had fun. Almost.

We’ve been together here for awhile now, this Wednesday crowd….our extended Juniper Hill family.  Sometimes it feels that here at the farm, we can be happy in our little group and… for a little while …. we can ignore the politics going on outside of our boundaries, the discussions that ultimately affect all of our lives with policies that dictate what the ‘best life’ for a person with a disability should be.

There are two stories told below.  Two very different, and very real scenarios.  Both can be acceptable in the adult system that provides services to you or your adult child with autism. Make sure that you truly understand the ‘vision’ of the agency that you choose, and how they carry out their mission.

Be careful what you wish for.

Our Bingo afternoon began a bit rough..  Very rough actually.  And very sad and upsetting for all of us.  Our friend Debbie (I’ve changed the name for privacy’s sake) arrived with a new staff person, and she was visibly upset from the first minute. ‘I miss Anna’ (former staff person whose name was also changed here).  ‘She isn’t working with me anymore’. Why can’t I talk to her?’.  I MISS Anna!’.  I NEED to hear her voice!’  Why won’t they let me see her?!’ and screaming ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ to the new staff person…. and screaming ‘I hate %&*@!#$!! (the name of her provider agency ).  It escalated to the point where Debbie threw herself on my bed sobbing, calling out Anna’s name.  I held her in my arms and she squeezed me until she calmed down. She eventually joined the Bingo game and seemed to enjoy it, though she was quiet for the most part.  She left early.

What happened?  It seems that Anna, the beloved staff person, broke a rule. She was suspended, probably fired. She is now forbidden to have any contact with Debbie, with whom she has been working closely for months.

And the rule?  Your personal life MUST be kept separate from your work. This means that the person with autism must not meet your family, visit your home, or be involved in your life in any way.  There must never be contact with the ‘client’ while not at work. (ugh.. how I abhor the term ‘client’…)

And the rule-breaking event?

We have had quite a winter here in the northeastern U.S.  Back to back snowstorms with power outages lasting days in some instances.  Power outages, with autistic people.  Families have been scrambling to make it as easy as possible for their family member…. taking precautions, buying generators, leaving town.  Debbie’s area of the county was hit hard, and their power was lost for days.  Debbie can NOT handle power outages.  Anna lives nearby and had power, and she volunteered to walk over and get Debbie and bring her to her house until power was restored. Debbie felt safe with Anna.

The program found out that Debbie had been to Anna’s house, and Anna was suspended.

The other rules of this program?  Do not form a personal relationship with your client, be professional at all times.  Do not touch their money, or their meds or personal belongings. (Debbie’s family bought a power generator and could not get it to their house in their car, so Anna helped them by putting it in hers… Anna was also cited for that).  Do not eat their food. No photographs.  Do not ever transport another person while you are transporting your client.

This is the way that this program keeps their ‘clients’ ‘safe’.

and then there is this rule:  ‘Do not do anything for them.  You are not there to do their work for them. They must do it themselves. If they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to’.  I guess this means that they already have to know how to do something before you try to teach them how to do it. (Whatever happened to ‘modeling’ a skill as a step in teaching someone?) Unfortunately, what this approach often translates to is an excuse for the staff to ignore the bathroom.

This is the way that this program ‘promotes independence’ in the name of ‘self-determination’.

**just as an aside here… it is true that everyone should be able to ‘self-determine’ NOT to clean their bathroom.  Unfortunately, a lot of these guys that are supported by these agencies do not fully understand the consequences of a decision like this.  This is not fair to them.  It is absolutely necessary that ‘understanding consequences of your decisions’  HAS to be part of the support that is provided.  It rarely is. The consequences of not cleaning your bathroom when you are an adult are that your housemates will be mad at you.  They will have to do your part of the work in keeping up the house and their staff will have to take time out of the regular routine to help them.  This makes the staff frustrated that the work is being dumped on them. In a rental situation, the landlord will not want tenants that do not take care of their place.  Self-determining to not clean your bathroom puts you in jeopardy of eventually losing your friends, having your friends lose their staff, losing your housing because your housemates don’t want to live with you or because the landlord no longer wants to rent to you, and ultimately affects the way landlords view renting to people with disabilities… .  This is an entire blog post in itself.**

Here is another story.  This one is happier.

Pete is here visiting us at the farm for a week.  He is a good friend who has known us all for three years.  He knows the staff people of the other guys here as well, and he receives support services from the same agency as Ray, who lives here. This morning, Pete had no scheduled staff while all of the Juniper Hill guys did.  Ray asked his staff if Pete could come with them to his volunteer job at Comp-Animals, the animal rescue organization where Ray walks dogs and does some cleaning a couple of times each week.  Pete went along… in the same car…. with Ray and his staff.

Ray's smoked salmon in a puff pastry crust' and Pete's Old Bay Shrimp and Scallop pie

Ray’s ‘Smoked Salmon in a Puff Pastry Crust’ and Pete’s ‘Old Bay Shrimp and Scallop Pie’

It was really nice for Pete to be able to tag along with Ray this morning. They also cooked a meal together this week with Ray’s staff, they made an awesome couple of seafood pies.

But it was tonight’s events that really made us realize the importance of having an unwritten policy of friendship and  ‘inclusion’ with your staff members.

Ray spent the afternoon today with his staff in the town where he used to live independently, 45 minutes from the farm.  He went to the library, his favorite one, and checked out some books and videos.   He cruised his favorite stores, visited a friend. When it was time to go, his staff person brought him to the bus station where for two years Ray has waited by himself and taken the bus back each week to our neck of the woods.

Today, for some reason, Ray got on the wrong bus.  He does not/will not carry a cell phone. He did not panic (maybe just a little!).  He realized he was on the wrong bus, got off several stops down the line, and found another bus to take him in the direction back towards the bus station.  Ray then walked for 45 minutes looking for his staff’s apartment, and found it.  He had seen where it was only once, months ago.  Somehow, he found it.  She fed him dinner and drove him back to the Hill at 7 o’clock at night.  Of course she did!

Wow, count the rules that would have been broken today if it had been this other program.  Boundaries.  Personal life.  Being at the staff’s home, with her child. Riding in the car with another person to the animal rescue.  Sharing food. Assisting during off hours.

And if Ray had been supported by this other agency, with all of its rules, he most definitely WOULD have panicked tonight.  Because he would not have had the supportive, caring, inclusive community that he has now, after three years living here at the Hill. He has personal relationships with ALL of us.  All of the staff, all of the guys, all of the guy’s families… some of the staff’s families.  He has all of our phone numbers (which he would have used if he had not found her house).  He has been to some of the staff’s houses…. including the other guy’s staff. He is skilled, self-confident, self-determining and independent, and he feels safe.

This agency would, in its defense, say that if Ray had been one of their ‘clients’ and somehow contacted their emergency hotline (staffed by unknown people) by asking someone on the street or going into a business and being confident enough to ask to use a phone (not sure how this fits with their ‘safety’ policy)…  they would have sent a taxi to take him home.

Setting up supports for yourself or your adult child?

Who are YOU gonna call?

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Banner photo at the top is of a few of the Wednesday gang with Alison’s (Andy’s staff) puppies

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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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!