Friday, July 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Fostering a sense of independence

By Brannon Gerling

There's an unusual buzz at the Ongoing Autistic Success in Society (Oasis) lifestyle school in Middletown, where, every other Wednesday, adults with autism serve the public high tea in the fine dining room of the 19th-century mansion.

Experiencing Oasis is a fascinating way to let down some of the behavioral walls that typically isolate the autistic population, sometimes out of parental or social fear and systemic disregard.

We're often barred from experiencing individuals with autism and Asperger's, even though about 40,000 children in New Jersey have autism spectrum disorder. That's one in 46 people - the highest ratio in the country. Roughly 170,000 Jerseyans will be somewhere on the autism spectrum in 20 years. The number of adults requiring permanent assistance will be lower, but how low depends on how proactive we are today as well as on student enrollment in transitional programs.

Most young adults with autism never graduate to the autonomous world. The bulk of the cognitively impaired either stay home, is indefinitely cared for by caretakers, or is systematically quarantined in residency, where disorders often deepen and intensify.

Past and current federal administrations struggle to develop strategies to incorporate this population's skills and habits into the workforce. The Obama administration, though periodically vocal, hasn't actually changed that. Gov. Christie's administration is celebrated, though for impotent monetary awards, such as $4.5 million in grants, and for efforts in establishing an "electronic autism registry" and an "office on autism."

More than anything, though, adults with autism need basic social integration and low-toxicity environments.

Independence is the social and societal goal, and the Vanderbilt study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience last January, and others are showing that independent work environments reduce the symptoms of autism.

Getting employed is obviously tough, though, since autistic behavior falls outside the norm. Individuals often display odd, sometimes brash behavior and may not fit into a typical manager's ideal for an employee.

But when behavioral rarities are tolerated, perhaps even understood, adults with autism experience a wealth of empathic inspiration and can actually help mollify the common exploitation and disquietude of today's overwrought work environments. A tolerating community is the antidote to fractured society.

Oasis is only one of two transitional schools in New Jersey for young adults with autism. Besides offering similar programs on social skills, self-advocacy, vocational training, and technology, Oasis is unique in including an organic farm experience.

The Oasis model of promoting self-sufficiency, even if not wholly self-sustaining, could relieve the state's burden to accommodate the soaring rise of individuals with autism who are not from wealthy households. Failing to act proactively, however, could lead to the state relying on pharmaceuticals and "asylums," or group residences, which are neither desirable or practical.

The farm has been key to reducing the symptoms of autism because these individuals, like everyone else, are happiest when they produce fruitful work and live better in low-toxicity environments. Thus, farms and the natural work that they intrinsically provide may be the lost piece in the autism puzzle, a piece that should be seriously considered as we come to the end of another Autism Awareness Month.

Unfortunately, such farms are likely to remain the exception. Not everyone can have pregnant Nigerian pygmy goats, dozens of free-range organically-fed chickens, and a pony named Panda. Most politicians and policy planners in New Jersey are unlikely to have the guts to fund such spaces for all those who could benefit from them. Of course, not every autism program has to adopt the Oasis model. But the surging population and ever-increasing demand for services necessitates transitional programs that foster independent growth.


Brannon Gerling is a writer, philosophy professor, and job trainer at Oasis school for adults with autism. brannongerling@yahoo.com

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