Rutgers’ offers independent living to adults with autism

University aims to equip participants with the tools to maintain autonomy

A groundbreaking facility in development at Rutgers University will provide adults with autism opportunities to work on campus and live in apartments alongside clinical staff and graduate students.

Unlike many institutions that have short-term transition programs for students, the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services hopes to offer permanent employment to 30 adults with autism and, eventually, integrated housing for 20. The aim is to equip program participants with the tools they need to enhance and maintain autonomy.

“The Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center here has been educating and treating kids on the autism spectrum for more than 40 years, so this is sort of a natural extension,” says Stanley Messer, dean of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, which is spearheading the project. “I suspect we’ll have a waiting list because there is such a big need for this kind of facility.”

Rutgers officials hope to fill the executive program director position by summer, says Messer. Meanwhile, a capital campaign is underway to raise at least $35 million to construct two specially designed buildings on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus.

The first, to cost an estimated $9.5 million and tentatively slated to open in fall 2018, will house the day program, offices and life-skills training areas. The second, an apartment building, will be added afterward to accommodate 20 adults with autism and Rutgers graduate students.

Once open, the center’s annual operating costs may be anywhere between $1 million and $2.5 million, depending on the number of program participants, Messer estimates.

The initiative is being heralded outside of university circles.

“Academic institutions are unique in their ability to offer a variety of employment, residential, recreational and social opportunities—all integrated within larger communities, and often connected by free public transportation,” says David Kearon, director of adult services for the national organization Autism Speaks. “Easy access to vocational training, social support and clinical services is also very attractive, as many adults with autism spectrum disorder will need a variety of supports to live independently.”

The Rutgers program, he adds, will help graduate students meet the needs of this community in the future.

Adult autism elsewhere

Programs that create employment and housing for adults with autism tend to be short-term, aimed at transitioning students from college to the outside world. A few notable examples:

  • Chapel Haven West, Tucson: Operating in conjunction with the University of Arizona; students live in apartments near campus and can participate in extended services for two years.
  • 3L Place, Somerville, Massachusetts: Still in its early stages, a residential transition project and ongoing learning experience that was developed with Boston-area universities for adults age 22 to 32 with developmental disabilities.
  • FirstPlace, Phoenix:  Also in early stages, with plans for 50 apartments, a two-year transition academy and a leadership institute.

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