A new facility in Charlottesville will help high schoolers and adults with autism learn how to live independently and receive job training, addressing a growing need in the community and throughout Virginia.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the country with autism will age out of the school system and transition to adulthood over the next decade, according to Autism Speaks. That means entering a social services system that is “woefully unprepared” to help them, said Ethan Long, the executive director of the Virginia Institute of Autism, which serves children and adults with autism throughout Central Virginia.
That drop in services when an individual turns 22 is called the “autism cliff,” Long said. VIA’s new Center for Adolescent and Adult Autism Services, or CAAAS, is aimed at helping to fill that gap in services and provide a bridge to adulthood. The center, which opened earlier this year, also allows the 25-year-old nonprofit to expand its services and assist more people within its 14-county footprint.
“The CAAAS is VIA’s answer to the autism services cliff,” Long said. “We do that by helping our adolescents and adults by really focusing on helping them live, work and play to the fullest extent in our community as possible.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lifelong development disorder that refers to a broad range of challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to Autism Speaks. About 1 in 54 children have been diagnosed with the disorder, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a survey from the Charlottesville Regional Autism Action Group, a majority of families with an adult child with autism reported needing assistance with learning daily living activities, such as meal preparation and shopping, as well as opportunities for socialization and connection with the community. More than 80% of respondents reported inadequate opportunities for adults with autism or other development disabilities to live away from home.
Inside the two-story building on Hillsdale Drive, adolescents and adults can learn how to clean dishes, do laundry and take care of themselves inside a life skills apartment. The building also includes training kitchens where students can learn additional cooking skills to help them find a job. The second-story houses VIA’s Viable Ventures, which is a business that employs individuals with autism to make candles and bath salts.
Currently, 69 people are participating in programs at the center. That includes Hal and Linda Noakes’ son, Adam. Hal and Linda said at the center’s grand opening Tuesday that finding appropriate education and training for their son has been a challenge, especially since he became an adult. But, the staff at VIA helped Adam through the pandemic with frequent telehealth sessions. He now spends his days at the center where he works for Viable Ventures.
“We are optimistic that Viable Ventures will prosper and continue to give Adam the dignity and respect of paid employment,” Hal Noakes said. “… Adam’s time at VIA has given us the gift of hope.”
Linda Noakes said that on a recent tour of the center, Adam was able to take their coffee orders and serve his parents cups in the center’s Max cafe.
“Adam asked what we wanted and went through the programming of a very impressive coffee machine to produce our order,” she said. “He did this with confidence and pride. When I saw him doing this, I got the feeling that he might be okay, and my anxiety about his future lessened, at least a little.”
That cafe is not currently open to the public because of COVID precautions.
VIA officials are excited about what the facility can be once the pandemic passes. They envision a space where adolescents and adults can learn, work and play. Program participants usually spend their days at the center, but Long wants them to come back in the evenings and weekends for game nights and other social activities designed for people with autism.
The center, located near the intersection of Hillsdale and Greenbrier drives, is located on Charlottesville Area Transit’s Route 7 that runs from Fashion Square Mall to the Downtown Mall.
“That’s not only allowing us to bring our students and adults into the community, it’s going to allow the community to come to us,” Long said.
He added that staff members at the center will also provide job coaching and supportive employment services and the organization will eventually offer in-home support.
“We’ll be able to hit a whole swath of folks in the Charlottesville region that we haven’t served before because we’ll be able to do a new service,” he said.
VIA has seen a steady increase in people needing its services with 273 clients in 2020, according to its annual report. In 2010, the organization served 28 people.
Long said the overall project cost more than $4 million. On Tuesday, VIA staff and families along with elected officials were on hand to celebrate the center’s grand opening and tour the facility.
“[This center] creates something that has not existed in this community,” said Chris Little, chairman of VIA’s board of directors, thanking the many donors and supporters who made the project possible. “… This place allows VIA to build a bridge to adulthood for people with autism in our region.”
First Lady Pamela Northam said at the grand opening that addressing the dropoff in services is a nationwide challenge.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 14% of autistic adults in their mid-20s have jobs in their communities,” Northam said. “Over 71% are still living with their parents, which is why VIA’s services are so critical. VIA provides a model for what’s possible.”
The Senior Center previously occupied the building but vacated in early 2020 to move into a new facility at Belvedere. Plans for the new center were previewed to the community in November 2019, and construction started in April 2020. Administrative staff started to move in later that year. Students and participants started attending programs in March as part of a soft opening.
“This is a space that’s really designed for folks with autism,” Long said. “It’s got all the sensory qualities. It’s got the lighting. It’s got the ingress and egress. It’s got unique learning spaces. That part alone is wonderful.”
Since students have started coming into the center, Long said people are happier and learning more.
By opening up the center, VIA was able to relocate the high school programs and relieve overcrowding at its James C. Hormel School. Additionally, outpatient services could expand at VIA’s other building off Greenbrier Drive once the administrative offices and adult programs were moved.