Rosenblum: Nonprofit has creative way to help adults with autism

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 9, 2014 - 9:50 PM
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Artist T.J. Jameson was diagnosed with autism at age 2½.

Photo: Gail Rosenblum • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com,

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Thaddeus “T.J.” Jameson leads a small group into the richly appointed living room of an Edina penthouse, offering insights into the owner’s private art collection which includes works by Chagall, LeRoy Neiman and Roybet.

“If I was a kid here,” 30-year-old Jameson jokes, moving his 6-foot-3 frame as gingerly as possible around a china cabinet, “I’d always behave.”

The tour wraps up with two spectacular pieces by Jameson himself. His dizzyingly detailed Mind Maps, as he calls them, celebrate gritty city life — taxi cabs and bridges, skyscrapers and cathedrals — daily slices that Jameson devoured as an art student at Dowling College in New York.

The tour is a treat for participants, but this one has a unique purpose. The participants are all volunteers who have come to give Jameson a rare opportunity to play to his strengths.

Jameson was diagnosed with autism at age 2½, which has meant a lifetime of trying to keep up, read cues, endure social exclusion and struggle to find meaningful work. None of that is evident as the gregarious and confident young man talks the finer points of Eugenio Cecchini Prichard’s Harbor Scene.

It’s just the outcome Kathryn Nordberg envisioned. The mother of a young adult son with autism, Nordberg is founder and CEO of Erik’s Ranch & Retreats, a new nonprofit whose grand opening is Friday.

The facility, with locations in Edina and Bozeman, Mont., offers supervised living and work spaces for adults with autism, ages 18 and older. Equally important, the nonprofit takes a creative approach to job-skills training, with residents working on-site as concierges, chefs and artists-in-residence.

The tours, called Minnesota Adventures, are an added bonus, tapping into the diverse passions of young adults with autism, including those who are nonverbal.

Jameson, who has a photographic memory, also leads an architectural tour in St. Paul. Others lead an Irish tour, a World War II tour, and a racetrack tour, which includes a private session with a jockey. The guides are paid.

The need for such innovation is great. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in late March that the number of U.S. children with autism has surged to one in 68, a 30 percent increase in just two years. Every year, 50,000 people with autism will reach age 18, facing a job market that’s tough for even the best prepared young adults.

Tours began in May of 2012, with friends and family participating. Soon, Nordberg began reaching out to corporations that support voluntarism among their ranks.

Many companies were familiar with programs such as Habitat for Humanity, where they’d help build houses. Volunteer with us, Nordberg said, “and you’ll be building a person.”

Target Corp. signed up, sending about 150 employees on five or six tours, followed by companies including Wells Fargo and Ryan Cos.

“When they first come on a tour, they don’t understand why it’s so important,” said Danette Smith, who recruits for Minnesota Adventures. “They’ll say, ‘I’m not raking leaves, I’m not painting a house.’ That’s OK. By just coming, you’re providing this really cool job for people like T.J.”

All tours are free. Visitors can make a donation when they sign up (www.eriksranch.org), but there is no obligation to do so.

T.J.’s mom, Laura Sweeney, is grateful for the opportunity afforded her son. “It’s a meaningful use of his time, his intellect and his emotional energy,” said Sweeney, of Minnetonka.

“T.J. has this great knowledge, but no marketable skills. This gives him something valuable to offer. He doesn’t receive that message very often.”

T.J. began speaking in full sentences at nine months, taught himself to read by age 2 and painted elaborate designs on his bedroom walls before learning that was a no-no. Around that time, “a switch flipped,” his mother said, and the brilliant boy spiraled down into his own impenetrable world, no longer talking, rocking back and forth, and launching into uncontrolled tantrums for 36-hour stretches.

Until a doctor said “autism,” Sweeney had never heard the word. Thanks to his parents’ persistence, he remained mainstreamed in school. In 10th grade, as he grew more isolated and unchallenged, they enrolled him in a small high school that was a better fit for his learning style. But friendships continue to elude him even now.

“It’s a constant source of pain and frustration for him,” Sweeney said. Watching him create art, or talk about it, is something else entirely. “He gets in this room and people start asking him about his art and he becomes this other person,” she said.

Jameson, who has an older sister and two younger stepbrothers, lives independently in Hopkins. At 25, he graduated from Dowling College with a degree in art and sociology and is now artist-in-residence at Artist League Studios, a Twin Cities think tank offering business models for emerging artists, created by well-known painter Edward Lentsch.

Lentsch, who has become Jameson’s mentor, was in Palm Desert, Calif., in early April for a weeklong show at Re-View Art Gallery featuring about two dozen of Jameson’s pieces. Many sold, ranging from $400 to $1,200. A producer from PBS was there to film Jameson and document the show, which was fittingly titled, “Oh, the Possibilities.”

“Art transformed his life into the ability to make an incredible contribution to the world,” said Lentsch, who credits Erik’s Ranch with being a big part of that transformation.

“Any parent of an autistic child will see him as a symbol of hope.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum

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