What happens to children with autism when they grow up? The statistics are not encouraging. People with autism are less likely than those with other disabilities to find and maintain employment. Most live with their parents, or in group homes. Since people with autism have an average lifespan, most will outlive their parents. Given the rising rate of autism diagnosis over the last few decades, this could lead to a major housing crisis in the coming years. It has been estimated that 80,000 adults in the United States are on waiting lists for residential autism facilities and sometimes the waiting periods as long as 8-10 years.
Luckily, some resourceful parents and researchers are looking for solutions. In 2009, Dr. Kim Steele and Dr. Sherry Ahrentzen collaborated on a project called “Advancing Full Spectrum Housing,” a comprehensive design guideline for housing people with autism. Sweetwater Spectrum, a housing development in California’s wine country, was the first to build a facility using these guidelines.
The building is a 3,250 square-foot, four-bedroom, five-bathroom house that can accommodate 16 residents. Marsha Maytum, the lead architect on the project, followed Steele and Ahrentzen’s guidelines when designing the house. Every bathroom has a floor drain, since people with autism are often drawn to water play. The large kitchen uses induction cooktops to limit the possibility of burns, the wall finishes are high-impact, and the carpet tiles are replaceable. Pairs of bedrooms were placed on opposite sides of the house, to reduce noise from other residents. The perimeter fence is slotted, but designed with solid planks at the bottom to discourage climbing.
The facility also offers a workout room, a pool, a working farm with animals that offer fresh eggs, a library, a basketball court, and a social room. Residents choose their housemates, and their families arrange for the level of care they require, from around-the-clock to drop-in help. Rent costs $650 per month, however, there is also a $2600 monthly association fee. Personalized care is not included. Subsidies are available for some residents who are unable to afford the cost.
Ideally, the facility will be able to house individuals on all levels of the autism spectrum, from severely affected to high-functioning. Residents are given as much independence as possible, and the facility is designed to meet their needs as they age.
The developers hope that Sweetwater will serve as a template for similar communities around the country. Groups in Phoenix, Cape Cod, the Catskills, and suburban Minnesota are already working on securing funding for similar projects in their areas. Airmount Woods, a facility in Ramsey, New Jersey, will start accepting tenants in November.
Some of the newer facilities may not offer all the amenities of Sweetwater, depending on available funding, local climate, and the personal needs of the tenants, but the basic design principles will remain the same. Rent and association fees may be less pricey in other areas of the country as well, depending on the local cost-of-living.
Mark Jackson, father of a Sweetwater tenant, has started a consulting company to lead others through the process of creating similar communities. He tells parents,
“It takes three things: time, money, and knowledge.”
More information is available on the web site: www.sweetwaterspectrum.org