Many young adults dread being asked, “What are you going to do after high school?” And this is especially true for those with autism and other disabilities. For many individuals with autism or other disabilities, it can be a big step to leave their family home. Some choose to attend a post-secondary program away from their families, learning the life skills that they will need to manage their own household, establish and keep meaningful relationships with peers and in general live life to the fullest…but even after attending a post-secondary transition program, it can be hard to imagine what comes next. A program like Vista Life Innovations knows this firsthand, having guided members for over 30 years. While not always straightforward and smooth, by utilizing and supporting a range of housing types and opportunities, there is a housing answer for everyone.
As a way to test community living, after being in a dormitory setting where teaching and training occurs 24 hours day, Vista offers a “middle step” to independent living through the use of a condominium setting. In these transition condominiums, students are afforded the opportunity to test their independence. Living with up to three housemates, students receive limited (but always available if needed) support from Vista’s staff. Jordan Shamas, a member of Vista’s programmatic leadership, explains, “The transition condominiums allow the students to get a feel for living independently. They get to practice taking care of their home and organizing their schedules using whatever strategies work for them.” Getting used to life outside of the dormitory can be especially valuable for those with autism and other disabilities who struggle to adjust to change (National Autistic Society, 2020).
Abigail, a student who recently moved into the condominiums, has hung chore checklists around her condo with pictures and notes to remind her to complete tasks, especially the ones that she must do more frequently now that she is living in her own space. One of the great benefits of the condominiums is that Life Skills Instructors (LSIs) support individuals like Abigail as they adapt to handling everyday tasks. Abigail is also learning to schedule plans with her friends from the dormitory, something which will help her stay social when she moves into her own home in the community. Once students are ready to live independently, many decide to find homes along the shoreline because of friendships made while at Vista.
Following a successful stint of “condominium living” under Vista’s guidance, students graduate from our core training program and move into the community in a variety of settings. Currently, Vista supports nearly 100 homes along the Connecticut shoreline, each of them person-centric and unique in their design. In Patrick’s case, as an adult with autism in Westbrook, he is glad to be living with his four housemates during the pandemic. Particularly during this time of social distancing, the housemates are enjoying spending time together for birthdays, board games, movies at home, and their regularly scheduled family dinners. “One of my favorite memories with my housemates is a water balloon fight we had over the summer,” Patrick says. “It was really, really hot. Oh yes, cooling off was the thing to do, and it was fun to have everyone join in!” The housemates each contribute to taking care of their home by sharing chores and cooking for each other, which is especially helpful for Patrick on days he goes to his job at Ventures Business Services, a social enterprise of Vista.
Patrick is one of the many Vista members who continue to receive support from Life Skills Instructors to guide the completion of certain tasks. Life Skills Instruction is tailored to the individual. For example, Leslie, a highly independent woman with autism, is adept with the stove and loves making hamburgers, garlic lemon chicken, meatloaf, and other recipes with minimal direction from her LSI. Instead, Leslie and her LSI work as a team to get tasks done faster, like when they divide up the grocery list during shopping excursions. Outside of Life Skills Instruction, Leslie has built an active schedule for herself filled with walks around Clinton, playing yard games like cornhole with her roommates, and attending Vista activities like bowling.
Some individuals prefer to live alone and are still able to stay social and engage with the community. Carl, a Vista member with autism for over 20 years, enjoys being able to “do his own thing” while having many of his friends as neighbors. He and several of his friends decided to start a tradition of having weekly dinners together, often meeting at Chip’s Pub prior to COVID. The friends have maintained their tradition during the pandemic by meeting virtually. On workdays, Carl takes the local 9 Town Transit bus route from Clinton to his job at Robert’s Food Center in Madison, where he engages with customers and co-workers. With almost 90% of Vista members who desire to work in paid positions along the shoreline, members often utilize public transportation independently or take advantage of Vista’s ride service to get around their communities.
Nathan, another Vista member with autism who has his own condominium, finds ways to stay social through the Vista Village activities. Because Vista members live across the shoreline, the “Vista Villages” allow members who live in nearby towns to come together for social gatherings. Typically, these gatherings would include parties and in-person activities, but events have turned virtual during the pandemic. Nathan is also someone who has embraced the concept of personalizing his own home, particularly since he and his family were recently able to purchase his condominium. A passionate Marvel fan, Nathan made his home feel like “him” by decorating with movie posters and dioramas and setting up a space for his art supplies. To make his kitchen suit his needs, Nathan purchased an organizational shelving unit to hold many of the special devices he loves to use. Using an onion chopper, for instance, helps him feel more comfortable and excited in the kitchen. Another new item is his air fryer, which he independently cooks with to make healthy food options like falafel.
Nathan has had a unique journey at Vista; when he first moved into the dormitory after arriving from Florida, he was determined to move back to the sunshine state and be with his family as soon as he graduated. Yet, as Nathan began to make friends, join clubs to develop his writing and artistic talents, and ultimately find a job that he loves, he realized that the shoreline had truly become his home. “I love it here. I was so happy to come back to my friends and my job after I temporarily moved back to Florida during COVID. This is my new home, and this is my family.”
In hearing the stories of these Vista students and members, it is evident that each person is thriving because they found a home and a life that is the right fit for them. Having and maintaining your own home, building a social circle, finding meaningful employment, and engaging with your community is possible if you are willing to be flexible in how you accomplish it. We encourage you to imagine the possibilities!
Please note: The names of the Vista students and members in this article have been changed for privacy reasons.
Becky Lipnick is the Communications Lead at Vista Life Innovations. For over 30 years, Vista has supported individuals with disabilities achieve personal success. Learn more at www.VistaLifeInnovations.org or contact Becky at BLipnick@VistaLifeInnovations.org.
Dealing with Change – A Guide for All Audiences. (2020, August 14). National Autistic Society. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/dealing-with-change/all-audiences