Several years ago, at an Advisory Board meeting for what is now the Abilis Autism Program, a parent said, “You know, some of our kids are going to be ready to leave high school in a few years. You need to start thinking now about how our agency will be best able to meet their needs.” And so we began, looking at programs currently serving young adults with a variety of needs, identifying the unique needs of adults with Autism, and thinking about what a program designed just for those young adults would look like. The Abilis L.I.F.E. (lifeskills, independence, friendships, and employment) program grew out of these early, exciting conversations.
Many of the programs that existed in Fairfield County, CT at the time did not have specialized expertise in Autism. Others focused on “high functioning” adults; people who might be able to do college-level work. Still others had full independence as a program goal; a goal we knew would be out-of-reach for many of the young people we knew. Parents told us about programs that were too far away to be a practical “day program,” and we visited a few that were too off-the-beaten-path to be part of an active community. The more we looked around, the more we knew that we wanted a program that was focused on autism, close enough to our community to be a day program for families who wanted their adult children to live at home or nearby, and based in the wide variety of community settings that are within an hour of where our families live. Finally, as our conversations with families and community members progressed, we knew we had to have a program that was based in a setting where there were a lot of other young adults.
Abilis L.I.F.E. grew out of our experiences over the years with toddlers, children, and teens with autism. We have been focusing on building independence, teaching social skills and communication, and expanding functional generalizable skills will children of all ages. Developing an adult program that continues that work was almost a given.
So, in July of this year, we opened Abilis L.I.F.E., a transition program for 18-24 year olds with Autism. After a successful summer program, we expanded our enrollment this fall. Abilis L.I.F.E. is based in rented space on the UConn Stamford campus, using this space for part of the day and using the entire local community for the rest of the day. The program runs from 8:30-3:30, with a half-day of classroom-based instruction and a half-day of social, vocational, leisure, and community service activities that are conducted in a range of settings in our local area. Our staff include professionals who have decades of autism-specific experience, and (as part of a larger agency) we have close colleagues with extensive experience in adult services. Abilis L.I.F.E. is a true “transition” program – neither a substitute for the rich academic experience a student can get in High School nor a full-day vocational program. We are using established curricula, including Jed Baker’s extensive Social Skills writing, and we are excited to have the input of local and regional experts, including Dr. Peter Gerhardt, in fine-tuning our activities and goals. Abilis L.I.F.E. bridges the gap between High School and adult life. By addressing the skills needed for a successful and happy adult life, we bring our participants to the highest level of independence possible.
Abilis L.I.F.E. is designed around the unique social, communication, and independence needs presented by many adults with ASD. “Our” adults have many skills – they may be great readers, have fantastic math skills, excel musically, or be able to tell you everything there is to know about trains. But, those skills may not be fully used if an adult doesn’t know how or when to ask for help, needs constant prompting to follow written instructions, or has learned to wait for verbal prompts. So, a key component of L.I.F.E. is building social awareness, communication skills, and independent initiation. A trip to the store is not about the final purchase, as much as it is about being able to walk through the store safely, keeping distance from other shoppers, negotiating the checkout line, and interacting with the cashier. Sure, we could get out of the grocery store in 10 minutes, if I do the shopping for him, but our participant will learn an important lesson if I “underprompt” and wait for him to look around and figure out his next step. Sometimes, a participant has a hard time – he might not be able to wait to pay for his purchase, he might find the store too loud, he might not be able to take “just one book” out of the library. But, as we go through the day with our participants, we welcome each “slip up.” These communication gaps, social misses, and behavior challenges tell us what we need to teach next, and help us continue to focus on social and communication fluency.
Abilis L.I.F.E is based in our community. In designing this program, we felt very strongly that we wanted to be able to help our young adults use as much of our community as possible. We wanted to expand their leisure options, make sure they knew how to be safe, give them skills they need to work, live, play, and shop in their community. Our location, in the middle of Downtown Stamford is the perfect backdrop for this kind of program. All successful autism programs focus on generalization of learned skills – a skill is only useful if you can use it when you need it. And the best way to get generalization is to teach skills in the natural contexts, with natural cues and reinforcers. What better way is there to teach safe walking on a sidewalk, careful crossing of driveways, and waiting for the “walk” sign than by taking a walk around the block!
Abilis L.I.F.E. is located near other young adults. This very key piece of our program came from the insistence of parents. Having watched their children grow up in Fairfield County schools surrounded by their typical peers, “our” parents wanted their teens and young adults to continue that experience after they left High School. We’ve learned from our work in integrated and inclusive public schools that just having kids with disabilities and typical kids in the same space isn’t “enough,” but it’s a great place to start. Now that we are in our classroom, we can see so many opportunities for our students to learn from their peers – sometimes informally (like when waiting in line to pay for lunch) and maybe also in a more structured way. Having our classroom in this setting has another advantage. It reminds us, the “adults,” what is typical behavior for a teenager or young adult. When our group looked a little groggy on a recent Monday morning, we laughed at how they looked like everyone else around us – having a hard time getting back to routine after a relaxing weekend. And, if we need to know what social behavior to teach, how you’re supposed to behave in public spaces, and what language to focus on, we can look around and get our answers. We have already learned so much from our participants about the unique needs presented by autism, the specific needs and interests of young adults, and the compelling need to build as much independence as possible.
Abilis L.I.F.E. currently enrolls three students, with a fourth to start this winter. We are currently accepting applications for a Spring, Summer, or Fall start in the program. Our program is the best fit for someone 18-24 years old, with a diagnosis of Autism, whose challenging behaviors are minimal, and who can work successfully in a small group setting. Interested families, agencies, and school districts can start the application process with a phone call to the Director of the Abilis Autism Program, Dr. Susan Izeman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (203)324-1880, x327 or the Abilis L.I.F.E. Program Coordinator, Elizabeth Reagle at email@example.com or x301.