Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

From Modeling to Mentoring for Adults with Autism

Bittersweet Farms (BSF), a private non-profit organization that provides holistic programs for adults with autism, was opened in 1983, when the incidence of autism was reported to be 1 in 10,000 births. The founder was a Toledo Public School teacher, Bettye Ruth Kay, who became fascinated with autism while teaching a group of adolescents in the 1970’s. She used her classroom as a laboratory to discover how best to create an environment where students with autism could learn and grow. She became very concerned about what life as an adult would be like for her students and made it her mission to learn about and develop adult services. Through her studies, she grew the concept of a “farmstead” where adults with autism could live and work in a rural environment rich with a variety of occupations related to the farm. She garnered the backing of a group of parents and professionals and, with community support, was able to create Bittersweet Farms, an 80 acre farm that afforded 15 individuals with autism the opportunity to live and work together to create a meaningful life. Bettye Ruth Kay’s philosophy of supporting adults with autism incorporated and stressed the importance of truly getting to know each person while matching each individual’s interests and abilities with the various occupations on the farm. The mission of Bittersweet is “to maximize opportunities for individual development of persons with autism by providing an array of premier services to individuals and support to families.”

Bittersweet receives funding through various Medicaid programs, grants and donations. Today we accomplish our mission through programs that have expanded to include serving 40 individuals who live on the farm or in the surrounding community and a day/vocational program that serves over 50 individuals. Participants can choose activities including horticulture (gardening, greenhouses, vermiculture, and crafts), woodworking, animal husbandry, pottery and art, grounds keeping, janitorial, and culinary skills. The activities evolve as opportunities are presented–for example, in horticulture we are now developing a Community Supported Agriculture program to offer vegetables to neighbors in the community.

Serving adults with autism was a unique concept itself in the 1980’s; creating a farmstead environment to provide those services has made Bittersweet almost iconic to those who study support services for adults with autism. From the beginning, Bittersweet served as a demonstration program for others to replicate, and virtually all other farmstead programs created for those with autism have studied Bittersweet for inspiration. While people are fascinated with the physical environment and the idea of agricultural occupations, the key to success really lies in the philosophy developed and taught by our founder. Our success proves that providing adults with autism with a palate of meaningful tasks can be engaging and therapeutic, but it is also essential for building self-esteem and promoting emotional well-being. Meeting the sensory needs of adults through physical activity and movement is a critical part of each day at Bittersweet Farms. Building social connections through a partnership with staff and with those in our small town community has many rewards in creating quality of life. The environment is also rich in supports, some naturally following the progression of the seasons, some provided via schedules. We have found over the years that our participants have continued to grow, learn and develop when provided with supportive and empowering experiences.

As a means to accomplish the “support to families” part of our mission, we have always had families and professionals visit Bittersweet Farms to learn about the model. In recent years we have seen a dramatic increase in interest. For a while, the idea of a farm and keeping a group of people with autism living together was not popular with experts and academics, as it was seen as going against the idea of community integration. In the past eight years, we have seen a growing interest and acceptance of this model and a movement to make sure it is an option open to families who see it as the best choice for their child. Many families share that their children with autism love the outdoors, enjoy being around animals and appreciate the chance to be creative. For many, the idea of their adult child being in a safe environment where they can be accepted and honored is important. Family members appreciate the opportunity that their adult children with autism are given to continue to learn, develop skills and abilities, and to make a contribution to their communities.

In recent years, we have moved from being a demonstration project to stepping into a role of advocating, supporting, and mentoring those who are interested in creating this kind of environment. Visitors have come from around the world, each with stories to tell, some of which are heart-breaking. A couple from Australia told an especially compelling account of their son ending up in prison; the saddest part was that he was treated better in jail than he was in a medical institution. This couple’s dream is to establish an agricultural residential program in Australia. A Chicago father of a seventeen-year-old son with autism has started a national network for existing and future managers of agricultural communities to share best practices, advocate for policy changes, and encourage more development. Another parent of an adult child with autism who visited Bittersweet years ago realized his passion by opening a program in Ohio this spring; Safe Haven Farms provides residential and day program services. This summer, Bittersweet was asked to participate in an international autism conference focusing on residential and vocational program development in Taipei, Taiwan. As the incidence of autism in Taiwan mirrors ours, families are quickly realizing the great need for services. Even in the highly urban country of Taiwan, they are embracing this agricultural model as a way to provide a safe, meaningful life for their children as adults.

Despite our humble beginnings, we have come to recognize that we have an interesting and successful model, mission, and philosophy. We now have a vision of serving as a global model of unity in partnership with all individuals affected by autism. This new focus has driven us to expand our training and consulting (T&C) programs. When we first began training and consultation activities several years ago, we primarily focused on visitors coming to BSF to tour our campus and learn about our philosophy. While beneficial and still an important component of our T&C services today (Consulting Tours/The Bittersweet Academy), the numbers we reach are limited.


Training Others to Replicate Our Successful Model


Since April of 2009, our focus has shifted to attempt to develop a way to help more people and do so more economically. Many who desire to establish support services for adults with autism have neither the time nor money to travel to Whitehouse, Ohio for training courses. The lead time required to plan for, create, and open farmstead-like models for adults with autism is approximately five to seven years, a huge obstacle given the crisis-mode in which families find themselves. In addition, BSF has limited resources, including a small training and consultation staff. We determined that it would be wise to utilize a cyber classroom to accommodate our staff and shorten the lead-time to develop new entities for parents, agencies, and others who wish to start adult support services.

The pressing need for helping others develop adult services pushed us to create computer-based courses we call Bittersweet’s WISDOM. The WISDOM acronym stands for “Why Invent Solutions? Duplicate Our Methods.” The concept is that we can help others shorten lead times by using our methods and model.

Based on our many visits from people who want to start support services for adults with autism, we have identified which training topics are most desired. As a result, the WISDOM curriculum has four series to address these areas—Business, Programming, Staffing, and Applicants and Families. Interested individuals can take reasonably-priced WISDOM classes and learn from experienced professionals in the comfort of their own surroundings at times that meet their needs. The WISDOM Curriculum is in its infancy and will continually be expanded to meet the needs of our patrons.

We continue to do our best to accomplish our mission of “providing an array of premier services to individuals and support to families.” We realize that the need for adult services is so great, that, even if we grew all Bittersweet campuses to serve more individuals, we would fall woefully short of all those in need. We cannot do it alone, nor can the parents, individuals, and agencies who know little about building programs for adults with autism. Our hope is that we can positively touch the lives of more people with autism by utilizing our knowledge of supporting adults by mentoring parents and other organizations to do the same.

Please be sure to visit our website to learn more about Bittersweet Farms and review all of our offerings.


Vicki Obee-Hilty is the Executive Director and a 23-year employee at Bittersweet Farms. Karen Shulman is Bittersweet’s Training and Consultation Consultant.

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