The U.S. autism community is facing a “perfect storm.” More adults need services amid economic crisis and budget cuts. Today, about 300,000 adults are living with autism (Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, n.d.). The total annual cost per adult with autism is roughly $71,000 in 2009 dollars (SAGE Crossing Foundation, 2009, p. 3). Thus, the total cost of caring for adults with autism today is $21.3 billion.
Between 2014 and 2028, an additional 395,000 children with autism will enter adulthood (SAGE Crossing Foundation, 2013, p. 1). By 2030, the population of adults with autism will reach 747,000 to 794,000 (Rogers, 2011, p. 15). Depending upon the projected population of adults with autism, the total cost of caring for adults with autism will increase to $53 billion to $56.37 billion in 2030. Thus, the search for solutions to the financial crisis facing the autism community is urgent.
Adults with autism particularly need supportive housing programs. Such programs allow adults with autism to live and work in the community and to achieve their maximum level of independence. Residential farm programs represent an emerging but promising strategy for providing supportive housing to severely impacted adults with autism. Such programs began with Somerset Court in the UK in 1974 and spread to the United States in the 1980’s (Safe Haven Farms (b), n.d.).
Several European studies have demonstrated the benefits of residential farm programs for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). A four year study of ten adult residents with ASD and cognitive disabilities at the Italian farm community of Cascina Rossago tested the participants for improvements in adaptive behavior (Orsi, Caputi, Pace, Di Nemi, & Barale, 2008, pp. S390-S391). The participants showed statistically significant progress in overall adaptive behavior and the communication and socialization sub-scales (Orsi, Caputi, Pace, Di Nemi, & Barale, 2008, pp. S390-S391). Thus, the program helped adults with ASD to improve the most critical weaknesses associated with autism.
Six German experts explained why agricultural work is suitable for many adults with autism. First, severely impacted adults with autism can participate in agricultural labor. “Development prospects for agricultural farms in the area of social work with people with autism are particularly evident in the fact that even hard handicapped people with autism can be qualified to perform meaningful work [and]….live in a “free” environment” (Nail & Von Elsen, 2011, p. 371). Second, agriculture offers a wide range of possible employment choices for autistic adults, including horticulture, work with animals, and general farm chores.
Third, working with animals can provide a feeling of emotional stability and meaning for adults with autism. The German experts said, “The animal area offers many useful work processes. In addition, animals create a clear and repetitive rhythm that is particularly suitable for people with autism, who are dependent on structure of meaning.” (Nail & Von Elsen, 2011, p. 369).
Government programs for adults with developmental disabilities represent a major funding source for many U.S. residential farm programs serving adults with autism. Ms. D. DeScenza, founder of Farmsteads of New England (FNE), said that Medicaid provides 85% of the funding for her program (personal communication, May 2, 2013). The Homestead program in Iowa receives 100% of its funding through Medicaid (D. Berry, personal communication, May 6, 2013). The GHA Autism Supports program in North Carolina receives over 90% of its funding from Medicaid (J. Banks, personal communication, May 14, 2013). Similarly, Mandy’s Special Farm in New Mexico receives 50% of its funding through the state’s Developmental Disability Waiver (Mandy’s Special Farm, n.d). Many programs including Mandy’s Special Farm, Homestead, Bittersweet Farms, and GHA Autism Supports fall under the Medicaid designation of ICF/ID, or Intermediate Care Facility for Intellectual Disabilities.
In addition, residential farm programs for adults with autism also build relationships with the local community. Homestead sells its horticultural products to area businesses, who in turn provide grants for needed machinery and buildings to store large equipment. Homestead Campus Youth / Home Director Deb Berry stated, “Revenue from sales of produce/plants helps support the Farm operation. We sell CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares to members of the community with a goal of selling 100 shares each spring/summer” (D. Berry, personal communication, May 6, 2013). Similarly, Chief Professional Services Officer Janet Banks of the GHA Autism Supports Program said the agency offers a CSA program with 55 members (J. Banks, personal communication, May 14, 2013).
Bittersweet Farms in Ohio was the earliest American residential farm for adults with autism. Founded in 1983, Bittersweet Farms today serves 20 adults with autism (Bittersweet Farms., n.d.). Bittersweet Farms is considered a national model for the residential agriculture movement for adults with autism.
American residential farm programs vary in size, operating history, and gender breakdown. Mandy’s Special Farm (MSF) began receiving government funding in 2008 and today serves four adult women with autism (Mandy’s Safe Haven, n.d.). MSF focuses upon meeting the needs of women with autism. FNE serves 21 residents with an even mix of men and women (D. DeScenza, personal communication, May 2, 2013). FNE began serving two residents in 2003 and built 3 additional group homes between 2008 and 2011 to add 19 new residents. Iowa’s Homestead program began in 1994 and serves 24 adults, including 20 men and 4 women (D. Berry, personal communication, May 6, 2013).
GHA Autism Supports, affiliated with the University of North Carolina-Chapell Hill Medical School, has been serving 15 residents in 3 group homes since 2005, including 10 men and 5 women (J. Banks, personal communication, May 14, 2013). Rusty’s Morningstar Ranch in Arizona, founded in 1985, today serves 8 men. Safe Haven Farms was founded in 2010 and now has 16 residents (Safe Haven Farms, (a), n.d.). Juniper Hill Farms in Pennsylvania has 3 male residents (Juniper Hill Farms, n.d.). Sunridge Ranch in Washington has 4 male residents since 2010 (Sunridge Ranch, n.d.).
Many farms provide similar types of employment opportunities for adults with autism which typically include horticultural work and animal husbandry. But the specific work options available to adult residents with autism vary somewhat from one program to the next. For example, the Homestead program in Iowa allows residents to engage in gardening, cleaning, and clerical tasks. FNE offers residents the opportunity to participate in gardening, caring for animals, cooking, baking, and producing crafts (Farmsteads of New England, n.d.). Bittersweet Farms in Ohio offers various types of agricultural, gardening, and animal husbandry in addition to woodworking and construction (Bittersweet Farms, n.d). Female residents of Mandy’s Special Farm (MSF) participate in gardening, animal husbandry, and therapeutic horse riding (Mandy’s Special Farm, n.d.).
Parents of children with autism were the driving force behind many residential farm programs in the US. Rusty’s Morningstar Ranch was formed by his parents Jack and Carlene Armstrong because they wanted to ensure a secure future for their son after their deaths (Rusty’s Morningstar Ranch, n.d.). Ruthie & David Robbins started Mandy’s Farm because they could not find a suitable long-term solution for their daughter Amanda (Mandy’s Special Farm, n.d.). Deborah DeScenza launched FNE because she is a mother of a son with severe special needs (Farmsteads of New England, n.d).
By 2010, at least 9 residential farms for adults with autism had been operating in 8 states. The existing farms currently house around 115 adults with autism in total. At least 11 additional farms are in various preliminary stages, with some farms having purchased land and others currently in the conceptual stage.
Many residential farm programs for adults with autism are highly successful and popular, as indicated by the fact they typically have no openings and long waiting lists (Agricultural Communities for Adults with Autism, n.d.). The small number of programs is insufficient to meet the enormous demand for supportive housing for the rapidly increasing population of adults with autism. The creation of additional residential agricultural programs would allow more adults with autism to receive supportive housing services and employment opportunities in the farm industry.
Ms. Rachel Silverman is an adult with autism. She is a writer, speaker, and advocate for adults with autism. She maintains a blog at www.aspergersoptions.blogspot.com. She can be contacted via email at Rachel_silverman@ymail.com and via telephone at (954) 907-6716.
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