Tag Archives: housemate

Friday Night Funnies with a bunch of autistic guys

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Jose Jalapeno on a stick

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

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

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

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

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

But there is something about Friday nights.

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

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

OHHHHH the pressure!

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

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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.

Thunderstorm

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.

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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

Fear and the fragile friendship

New York ComicCon 2012

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

On the Farm

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

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

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

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

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

FEAR.  That’s a big one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juniper Hill two years later.. a reflection on what we’ve become

Shelly, the crayfish

Happy Anniversary to us!  Tomorrow is Ray’s 27th birthday… and it is this weekend that he moved into the green house on Juniper Hill, just two years ago.

He moved in with a blue crayfish, giant bins of LEGO/Bionicles, plus one GIANT bin which contained the cardboard /packaging of all of his LEGO/Bionicles …. because they have information on the cardboard that he wants to remember… just in case.

Jose had also just moved in,  to the cottage at the top of the hill where he  joined Brent who had been alone since his housemate of 12 years had moved out three months before. Andy had been visiting for weeks at a time during the summer, and had decided that he, too,  could leave his parent’s home after all, and move out on his own.

And so the ‘core four’ began their life together on the hill…. navigating social interactions  and the well-stocked pantry of available food. That first weekend all together, Ray asked if his best friend could visit for the weekend … and so we met Michael. He became a regular visitor, and moved in some months later while he finished out his last year at school.

October, 2010

We had a plan, my friend Mollie and I.  We would all live happily together and grow giant fields of sunflowers and other cut flowers for bouquets, and we would work the fields with help from all of our other friends who happened to have a disability.  Our flower business would thrive, and we would make flower arrangements for events, wreaths for Christmas, and hand deliver bouquets for all holidays. We would have herds of fiber animals, and after we sheared the alpacas and combed the cashmere goats and angora rabbits, we would process the fiber and spin it into luxurious skeins with our spinning wheels as we sat by the fire on cozy winter nights. And then come spring, we would travel all over the East Coast selling our wares at farmer’s markets…. and we would earn enough money for all the guys to have a decent income, plus become a non-profit and get start-up grants to get it off the ground.

Ready… set… go!

Go?

Reality check.

Live happily together?  But he’s LOUD.  He hurt my feelings. He stole my … _____ (LEGO, money, chips, favorite shirt).  He hogs the TV.  He hogs the computer.  He swears. I hate his music.

Grow giant fields of perfect flowers?  Not if the groundhogs and deer, weeds and stinkbugs have anything to say about it.

Work in the fields? In the dirt?  With bugs?  In the sun? For how long?

The toilet’s broken again…. a gallon of milk, a dozen apples, and two bags of chips just disappeared in an hour…… and there is a mystery $300 dollar overcharge on the Comcast bill.

Farmer’s  Markets all over the East Coast? You mean, like when we are not busy weeding?  Like on Saturday mornings? When we are sleeping until noon because we are tired from our busy week?

It’s midnight and the dishes are done and the kitchen is clean and the guys seem settled and getting along… guess I should write that grant now.

And weren’t we going to learn how to spin?

Sigh….

Here’s what we DO have here on Juniper Hill, after two years.

A growing community of friends who happen to have autism, or other disabilities.  A group of friends who care about each other, who trust each other, and who get together once a week to work for an hour or so, here in the fields and then hang out over a fantastic lunch made by Jose, who loves to cook and feed people.

A group of WWOOF (http://www.wwoofusa.org/index.aspx) volunteers who help out on the farm when the guys just can’t (those bugs and that dirt….)

A medium sized field of flowers, but sunflowers only, kind of weedy.

A place at the local West Grove Farmer’s Market, which runs on Thursday afternoons…. only. Close to West Grove’s ice cream shop, the library, and Chinese restaurant… for market breaks.

the market ….where we sold all of the sunflowers that the groundhogs didn’t eat. and where we show off our future with fiber (cause this coming year, the guys are really going to learn to love making things out of felted alpaca! Right?!)

One toilet fixed, one more to go.

No start-up grants or non-profit, went back to working instead.  So I now help other people with autism and other disabilities, to set-up their own independent housing in the community.  I have a regular paycheck, and it pays for fencing.

And here on the hill are a group of guys who have learned to live together, play together, share their space, their food, and the TV. They take care of the farm animals, do daily farm chores, learned to cook, have great support staff who have hung in there for the entire two years….

they have lost a ton of weight and learned what healthy eating choices are, found volunteer jobs and paying jobs… and they are happy, self-confident adults who are great ambassadors of autism when we are out on our many wonderful trips together, courtesy of AALIVE (http://www.aalive.org)

It was always supposed to be about the GUYS.  And it is.

And no, I haven’t learned how to spin.  But the WWOOF volunteers came with a spinning wheel and cozy winter evenings are coming up… who knows?

Jose’s Life Worth Living…the success story of a new kidney, and new life

Next month we celebrate six years of Jose’s new life, given to him with a kidney transplant on September 20th 2006, his 18th birthday.

You might have seen the national headlines this week, about a young man here in Pennsylvania being denied a heart transplant because of his autism… yes, it actually states ‘autism’ as a reason in the doctor’s report.

Here is the link to the story:

Autistic man denied heart transplant

We are thinking about this a lot here on Juniper Hill, and this is why.  Our wonderful friend, Jose, was given a kidney transplant six years ago, and now he has a  a rich, fulfilling life.  A life filled with friends, family, adventure, new experiences, a happy home, and so much more to look forward to, now that he has been given this second chance.

Jose also has an intellectual disability.

Jose is not on the autism spectrum, but his best friends and housemates here on the Hill, all are. And Jose would like everyone to know that his life is important and worth living, and if his autistic friends were in similar circumstances, they all would deserve a transplant as well.

Jose was not what a doctor would consider a ‘good candidate’ for a transplant, given the usual requirements. He had all of the same issues that Paul Corby has, the ones listed as reasons for denial.  Psychiatric issues, a disability, and an environment that did not appear to be able to handle the complexity of his life-long after-care. He was taking medications to help him deal with the stress of dialysis and not knowing if he would ever get a new kidney…. his immigrant family struggled financially, did not speak English, and did not understand the instructions that came with his medications.  But for some reason…. after years of dialysis at AI DuPont Childrens Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, he received a life-saving kidney.

Jose struggled for some time after his transplant.  His home environment was not ideal for his recuperation, he gained unhealthy weight because of his medications, and he was sick quite often.

He moved to Juniper Hill in the Fall of 2010, and his first winter was filled with bouts of nausea and indigestion, migraines, and flu symptoms.  His new support workers, funded by his government disability  ‘waiver’ that paid for people to come to his home and help him with medical and daily living needs…. kept up with doctor visits while teaching him how to cook, keep house, and get along with housemates.

Jose combing Cashmere off of Johnny the goat

Today, two years later…. Jose has lost all of his extra weight, no longer takes psych meds and has reduced his medications to basically just those that help with the kidney transplant.  He is strong and healthy and ready to take on the world.  It is inspiring just to be part of his life.

Jose received the ‘Against all Odds’ self-determination award at the annual luncheon this year

He volunteers at the local community center for after school children, mostly Hispanic, at The Garage in West Grove, PA. He is active in his church community and has made many friends.  He is passionate about singing… and his life long dream is to become a Christian singer. He is talking about moving to a nearby city in the ‘not too distant’ future… and getting his own apartment because he loves the hustle and bustle of city life.

Now that he has his health back, he goes out on weekends, by himself (without  his support workers) in his old neighborhood of Kennett Square PA and knocks on doors of businesses asking for work. He wants to work with young children and especially loves to be in hospitals making children laugh.

And home on the farm? …  he takes care of the farm animals in the morning, prepares his own meals, does his laundry, is an all around responsible young adult, considerate housemate and loyal friend.  He cooks lunch for a crowd of 15 volunteers every Wednesday with his wonderful support worker Carin.  And for breakfast, he makes a mean pot of homemade oatmeal.

He makes everyone laugh, every day.

Well lived, Jose.

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

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!)