Tag Archives: friendship

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!

Bossy Big Sister Live-in Companion

Being the live-in companion to a bunch of guys young enough to be my sons, I had to make a concerted effort to not be the ‘mom’ of the house.  We came up with the ‘bossy big sister’ role instead.

It can be a difficult role to navigate, the live-in person to a bunch of guys who are old enough to live independently, want to make all of their own decisions as young adults, but who are still in need of support in order to succeed.  So I tried to imagine them as younger somewhat annoying brothers who leave their trash around the house, hog the TV, inhale all the good junk food, and who don’t really care if their socks smell or if they have gone four days with out a shower.  Once I got that picture in my head, our relationships fell into place. ‘Self-determination’ is a tricky balance of minding my own business and declaring my right to an odor-free living environment. I have now had a year of practice not saying the first nagging thing that comes to mind as I enter the kitchen and everyone’s dishes are in the sink…with food on them. I can’t ‘demand’..but boy can I whine!

I spent many years in a university setting getting various college degrees.  During this time, I lived with other students in big houses with lots of bedrooms.  Everyone has their own pet peeves in these types of living situations, I was the ‘kitchen police’.  I love to cook…. and I clean up as I go when I am preparing a meal.  I never had a lot of tolerance for housemates who trashed the kitchen, and I still don’t.  So when the guys leave food out, or they don’t throw away trash or wipe counters… I whine until they do. I am still learning to NOT sound like their mothers.

I also am the one to call a house meeting to talk about dinner schedules, household chores, or group trips coming up.  But it is the rest of them that bring up their own pet peeves, and that’s great.  They reprimand each other when the music is too loud…. or if someone takes a giant serving of lasagna or eats too many Clementines.  Trouble is, they sound like each other’s mother when they do it too! Still working on that one.

By the way, these 6 guys are absolutely the best housemates ever.  I have never laughed so hard in my life, or had so many inspiring things happen every day.   Somewhere around mid-summer last year, I began to realize that I was not here doing them a favor anymore, I was not just doing this for ‘other families’ to replicate. How lucky am I… to have not one, but six amazingly loyal, caring , interesting, hard-working and brilliantly funny best friends sharing a home.  Definitely worth a few smelly socks on the bathroom floor.

(coming soon:  how to find and keep a live-in companion for your family member!)  

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

It takes a year… to make a family

Over a year into our project here on Juniper Hill, and the guys are somewhat settled into a routine.  It is a Saturday morning in January, snowy and cold… and we have finished with the morning farm and animal  chores. Brent has made fires in the fireplaces and sits playing ‘Math Bingo’ on the IPAD.  Andy has cooked up a great breakfast on his own… scrambled eggs with cheese of course… but also onions, ham and mushrooms.  Ray is playing acoustic heavy metal music, and no one is complaining.  He is researching information on foxes and dogs on the internet. And Michael is talking about dinner ideas, Saturday is his night to cook.  Jose is with his family at a party this weekend, and Patrick went to his parent’s house to welcome his brother home from Afghanistan.

It sounds a bit like a bunch of college guys, and at first glance it looks that way as well.  Jeans and hoodies, gently worn furniture, popcorn and empty ramen containers in the trash…..and music going, all of the time.  Cluttered bedrooms that could always use a vacuum.

What a difference a year makes…

Just a short year ago... the guys were starting to get to know each other.  They hadn’t really ever cooked a meal, shopped for groceries, kept a house clean, gotten up on their own for a job.  They had never lived closely with peers… real peers…..and they weren’t really sure they even wanted to. As the months went on, they all went through periods of doubt.  Everyone here has ‘issues’.  Everyone here does something that annoys someone else here.  In many ways, it was easier just being home with parents.

But somewhere around early autumn, things started to change.  Two of the guys had already had a serious altercation in July.  That was when we all realized just how much fear and uncertainty was involved in the making of new friends…. and we started to talk about it at dinnertime.  So much trust developed over food!  Within minutes of the incident in July, both guys had been desperate to make amends.  It became obvious to everyone that they all just wanted the other guys to like them, even if the other guys were annoying.  They cared more about friendship than quirks and social missteps. Acceptance and trust, it’s what it’s all about.

Last night, Sunday evening, Patrick came home from being at his parent’s all weekend.  He lives with Brent and Ray in the rancher, with minimal supervision.  His sink was full of dirty dishes, the living room cluttered with Ray’s personal possessions, empty popcorn bags and banana peels.  Patrick and Ray had some angry words, and Ray came down to the other house in frustration.  The rest of us were all there, getting ready for dinner and hanging out.  Within minutes, Patrick came down to the house.  Together in the other room they talked it out, it took all of 2 minutes.  No one else got involved.  Ray went up to their house and cleaned up, and after dinner Patrick, Ray and Brent went up to their house together….  Patrick shared his Girl Scout thin mints that he had bought from his niece, and they polished off the entire box together.

Now that’s family…