Creating a future for autistic adults

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 27, 2012 - 6:51 AM

The founder of an Edina-based nonprofit says the goal is more than teaching job skills: "We're trying to build a whole life." A second center is being built in Montana.

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Tour guide T.J. Jameson, 28, who is autistic, led guests Thursday through the Walker Art Center, where he puts his enthusiasm for art to good use.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Of the hundreds of modern art exhibits at the Walker Art Center, the Andy Warhol silkscreen painting of Jackie Kennedy is one of T.J. Jameson's favorites.

"See how the color blue changes across each of the panels?" Jameson asks the tour group he's leading.

Such details don't escape Jameson, who has a photographic memory and a passion for art.

He's one of seven tour guides working for a fledgling Edina-based nonprofit that began providing jobs this summer to local young adults with autism, a developmental disorder that often affects social communication skills.

The program allows them to showcase their array of skills from horseback riding to art to encyclopedic knowledge of the local architecture scene. It also fills a vast employment need for the soaring population of autistic young adults, many of whom have just left the safety net of services provided by schools and who face an unfamiliar world.

"What we're trying to do is more than just provide a job for adults with autism," said Kathryn Nordberg, chief executive officer of Erik's Ranch and Retreats, which is named after her son. "We're trying to build a whole life."

Advocates say the need is desperate.

"They are absolutely filling a huge void because there are not enough housing options and residential supports for adults across this country," said Leslie Long, director of housing and adult services for Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group.

'After I'm gone?'

Founded in 2008, Nordberg's organization is building residential facilities for young adults with autism in Edina and in Paradise Valley, Mont.

Both locations will provide on-site jobs and accommodate paying guests who can go fly-fishing, skiing and hiking in Montana. In the Twin Cities, they can tour local museums, visit parks and participate in other urban offerings. Day tours are also offered.

Nordberg's son, Erik, now 20, was diagnosed with autism when he was about 2. He couldn't talk, he bit his hands, destroyed furniture and was oblivious to the world around him. After therapy, Erik now loves horses and music and can express his wants through mostly nonverbal forms of communication.

Still, Nordberg worries about his future: "At some point, you stop and ask yourself, "What's going to happen to my child after I'm gone?'"

Already a waiting list

For many adults with autism who can't live on their own, parents are forced to cobble together long-term measures to provide for their care, whether that's a group home setting or hourly care. Many are on lengthy waiting lists for Medicaid waivers to help pay for long-term care.

Nordberg says Erik's Ranch and Retreat will provide living quarters, high-quality jobs and frequent interaction with volunteers that she hopes will lead to long-term relationships.

"We hope people will come back year after year, keep in touch with them via Facebook or other social media and maybe send them Christmas cards each year," she said. So far, Erik's Ranch and Retreat has more than 170 autistic adults on its waiting list for the 83 permanent resident positions at the Montana and Edina locations, Nordberg said. She said she envisions jobs for all, even residents who don't speak and have limited social skills.

Residents will initially be asked to pay about $35,000 a year, but Nordberg expects that amount to decrease over time as the home becomes a self-sustaining enterprise with an established endowment.

Construction recently began on the visitors center that will anchor Erik's Ranch in Montana, set to receive its first residents in the fall of 2013. Similarly, renovations are underway at one of the buildings at Heritage of Edina Senior Living Community that will house Erik's Retreat, expected to open next summer. Nordberg is the vice president of administration at Heritage, which is owned by her mother.

Tour guides have assistants

When Jameson was a child, his mother, Laura, would let him push the buttons on all the toys at Target that made noise as a reward for good behavior.

His fascination with noises and moving objects is common among people with autism. It resonates in his artwork today.

A graduate of Dowling College in New York, he works with cigarette packs, bottle caps and other found objects to create artwork much in the same way his idol Robert Rauschenberg did.

Most of his work centers around busy city scenes, and features cars, buses and other modes of transportation.

"It's kind of like -- the emotion behind each one -- I guess you could say is manic," he said.

Like all of the organization's Minnesota Adventures tour guides, Jameson has an assistant to help him. Participants are told that some guides may seem aloof, have a strong need for order, or make strange noises.

Changing perceptions

Jimmy Reagan, 19, leads a tour at Sunfish Cellars in Lilydale where he displays his art. Because he doesn't speak well, his mother, Peg, and an assistant explain his work, which are often colorful portraits of people and animals reminiscent of Van Gogh and Picasso.

Peg said her son, who usually wears a suit and tie to the tours, gains a sense of self-respect from being able show off his artwork, which has received local and regional accolades.

"We're changing the way people think about these kids," she said.

This is the first summer that tours have been offered, and more are planned for the fall. Nordberg is working with local corporations to find volunteers to go on the tours, which are free but accept donations.

"When people volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, they're building a house," she said. "Here, they're helping to build an entire person."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

  • related content

  • Jameson creates his artwork with cigarette packs, bottle caps and other found objects, much like his idol Robert Rauschenberg did.

  • Jameson entertained guests Shannon Nelson, Trish Nguyen and Elizabeth Graft, his tour assistant, during the limo ride to the Walker Art Center on Thursday.

  • Jameson, a graduate of Dowling College in New York, often draws cityscapes, a hint of his fascination with sound and moving objects

  • FACTS ABOUT AUTISM

    One in 88 children diagnosed with autism.

    220,000 people with autism are on waiting lists nationwide for federal funding to pay for housing or other care.

    Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism Speaks

    MORE INFO:

    Erik's Ranch and Retreat and upcoming tours: eriksretreat.org

    Jimmy Reagan's artwork: www.throughjimmyseyes.com/Gallery.php

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