Wednesday, March 26, 2008

As autistic children age, society faces challenges

Saturday, March 22, 2008
The Press-Enterprise

The state of California has been dealing with the explosion of autism cases among young children for more than a decade, but there is another wave coming.

The oldest children, the first in a spike in autism cases that began in the 1990s, are moving into adulthood, which has experts, educators and service providers bracing for the new and unique needs of that population.

"What's uncharted is the sheer volume, which then affects the number of resources you have to develop to meet their needs," said Julia Mullen, a deputy director with the state Department of Developmental Services.

Diane Woolsey, of Wildomar, began looking at options a few years ago for her son Brandon, who at 22 "ages out" of the school system this year.

Brandon Woolsey is severely autistic and functions at a first-grade level. He needs one-on-one care, which is rare in the adult day care programs currently available, she said. He also wouldn't do well in a workshop setting because the noise and number of people would overwhelm him, Woolsey said.

But Brandon is good with his hands and does well outside, so Woolsey and her friend are hoping to start a ranch where Brandon and a few other autistic men could live and work in a structured environment tending a garden and horses.

"I said my son is always going to live with me, but the reality is he can't unless we outlive our kids," Woolsey said. "As he got older, I started thinking about what's fair to him as a young man. He deserves to be as independent as possible."

The highest functioning people with autism, with some personalized help, will be able to go to college, hold jobs and live independently.

Those with severe autism may need residential care, day programs and transportation -- all more costly to the system than children being cared for by their families.

Of the 36,952 people with autism now receiving disability services from the state, 31,376 -- 84 percent -- are younger than age 21. The state is in the process of making population projections for the next few years.

Among the developments for serving adults with autism:

The Inland Empire Autism Society and Riverside County Office of Education are working to develop more job-specific training programs for teens and young adults with autism.

Legislators last year increased the rate paid for state-approved providers who develop jobs suitable for those with autism. Such jobs require consistent supervision, little distraction and tasks that can be broken down into small, learnable steps, Mullen said.

Several local schools and agencies have hired consultants to coach them on developing micro-enterprises, which are small businesses such as coffee carts and mobile shredding services to allow people with disabilities to work at their own pace.

Colleges are accommodating students with autism with such services as note takers, private dorm rooms, distraction-free areas for taking tests, and social, academic and independent living support.

Services such as Nashville, Tenn.-based College Living Experience, a company that provides help for students with learning disabilities, are including autism. Six sites across the country, including Monterey, offer apartments within walking distance of college campuses. Advisers help with academic tutoring, social outings and independent living skills, said Mark Claypool, the company's president and chief executive officer. The program, which costs $35,000 a year, not including college tuition, has grown from 50 to 178 students in two years, he said.

Reach Janet Zimmerman at 951-368-9586 or

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