Many people associate autism with childhood, but the truth is that people on the spectrum don’t automatically outgrow their special needs when they become adults. Autism is for life.
For many families, that means adult children with autism end up living at home with their parents for the rest of their lives, or until their parents are no longer able to care for them. And when that happens, the options are few and grim: a group home, private round-the-clock care, or, sadly, outright abandonment.
Susan Wallitch knows this struggle better than most. When she had a health crisis a few years ago and found herself unable to care for her 27-year-old autistic son, Franke, she was faced with few options for his care. Group homes had long wait times, and some of them wouldn’t take Franke because of his behavioral issues. Private care was not only expensive, but it would have isolated Franke from everyone except his caregivers, leading to emotional distress and leaving him at high risk for abuse. She says when she confided in others about her crisis, she was sometimes told to just take her son to the police station and drop him off.
Luckily, Wallitch regained her health and is again able to take care of her son, who is functionally nonverbal. However, she and countless others face the terrifying question of mortality and parental responsibility every day. What will their children do when they no longer have parents or other family members to take care of them?
Some people spend their lives worrying over this question but never do anything about it, but Wallitch, who is an attorney, isn’t that kind of person. Neither is fellow attorney and autism mom Mary Anne Oemichen, whose 25-year-old daughter, Amy, is also nonverbal and living at home.
So the pair got a group of women together for regular discussions at a coffee house to figure out what they could do about the situation. Through their meetings, the ladies learned that most of their children had a few things in common. They were unable to take care of themselves and had a difficult time maintaining relationships with others, and yet they wanted to be friends with people their own age and be a part of a larger community of people. Most of all, they wanted to be able to make decisions for themselves and live life their own way.
“Part of our role will be to build the community and create opportunities for people to spend time together,” Wallitsch says. “To live where other people live, people closer to his own age, to make new friendships, to live somewhere other than where his mother and father live.”
With this in mind, the moms began drafting up a plan for an apartment complex that would meet all of these needs, called Home Of Our Own. Only about one-fourth of the 40-unit building, located in New Glarus, Wisconsin, would be reserved for people with autism and other intellectual disabilities, while the rest would be comprised of low-income housing for neurotypical people of all ages and from all walks of life.
Home Of Our Own is meant to be open to people with disabilities of any severity, and low-income would not be a barrier for their entry into this living facility. Oemichen and Wallitch are already working on ideas for community-building activities that will help those with developmental disabilites get to know their neighbors and become friends.
“In the end, everybody wants the opportunity to be independent and to be social and to be part of a community,” says Oemichen.
Aside from the usual communal spaces, walking paths, and gardens, the building plans include special accommodations such as doubled-up drywall for people who have a low threshold for sound and room-darkening curtains for those who are sensitive to light. There would also be a safe room for caregivers to temporarily separate themselves from any residents who should become violent or threatening.
The Home Of Our Own building project is expected to cost around $8 million, but the group is well on their way to getting the funding and starting the build. Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp. has kicked in $500,000 and employed an architect.
The families involved in the project are working on fundraising another $500,000 and have applied for a low-income tax credit program as well. If they are approved, they expect to have the building open for business in the fall of 2020.
Creative solutions like this one are so important as autism numbers continue to rise. So many people will benefit from living arrangements like these ones, and Wallitch and Oemichen hope to continue building them across the nation! Share to help spread their amazing idea!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?