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Sunday, 26 May 2013 22:00

Group creates residential farm for adults with autism

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A group of parents hopes to start a residential farm therapy organization for adults with autism in Kalamazoo County. Co-founder Cathy Pinto said her son, Tom, pictured, has found success with animal-assisted therapy at Tillers International in Scotts, Mich., where the group plans to remain until it can get the funding to buy its own property. A group of parents hopes to start a residential farm therapy organization for adults with autism in Kalamazoo County. Co-founder Cathy Pinto said her son, Tom, pictured, has found success with animal-assisted therapy at Tillers International in Scotts, Mich., where the group plans to remain until it can get the funding to buy its own property. COURTESY PHOTO

Parents do not forget the day a child is diagnosed with autism.

Just ask Catherine Pinto, the mother of a 22-year-old son with the complex disorder of brain development.

“He was less than two-years-old,” she said. “Back then, they didn’t give you any hope. Now I see so much more hope.”

It’s that sense of hope that Pinto wants to spread to other families. She and Cindy Semark, who has 39-year-old son with autism, are forming an organization designed to give adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) an option to take more control over their lives.

Their idea, which is currently seeking nonprofit status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, is to offer adults with ASD a residential farm therapy community where they could live and work in Kalamazoo County. It’s an idea modeled after similar programs across the country.

AACORN Farm — Autism Agricultural Community Option for Residential Needs — is in the process of forming its organization and identifying funding. The founders hope to be granted a tax-exempt, nonprofit status soon so they may begin raising the funds needed to build and operate the farm, Pinto said.

Pinto said it will cost about $3 million to make AACORN Farm a reality. She said a minimum of 40 acres is required, but that between 60 and 100 acres is more realistic to house 600-square-foot units that will have a bedroom, bathroom and living area for each resident, plus a common area where meals and activities will be shared.

The living quarters at AACORN Farm will be designed to accommodate four residents who would live on the farm and attend day programming there or work elsewhere in the Kalamazoo area.

The group is a partner of the Agricultural Communities for Adults with Autism, a consortium pushing for holistic, farm-based employment and housing models for adults with autism.

Dr. Liz Farner, a Kalamazoo-based pediatrician, said she sees the effectiveness of farm therapy with her autistic patients. She has been using this type of therapy since 2000.

Farner has been working with Pinto’s son, Tom, and Semark’s son, Jeremiah, at Tiller’s International in Scotts, Mich. since 2012. Tillers provides the space free of charge.

“For Tom, working with cows and pigs and goats and horses and chickens is so important to him and lets him take care of something that needs his care,” Pinto said. “No matter who you are or what your challenges are, there’s nothing like a sense of being needed.

“Tom deserves a life that I’m not in charge of. The problem is the life he wants doesn’t currently exist. That’s what I’m trying to give him.”

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects social, language and perceptual development, often with widely varying degrees of impairment across children. The prevalence rate for autism in the United States is 1 in 88 children aged 8, a 78-percent increase in prevalence between 2002 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Michigan, nearly 16,000 students with an autism spectrum diagnosis were enrolled in public schools as of 2011.

Rules relating to special education services in Michigan require public schools to provide services to students with ASD up to age 26. Pinto said a new phase of life begins for them after the age of 26 when they are no longer eligible for programs and services from the public schools.

“Families are forced to try to piece together appropriate work/activity options for their young adults from a maze of inappropriate options,” Pinto said.

The need for lifetime care for some ASD adults led her and others to look for an option like AACORN Farm. Pinto and Semark began laying the groundwork for their farm two years ago.

The holdup in the awarding of nonprofit status is due to an aggressive campaign by the Internal Revenue Service that began in the last few years to make sure nonprofits have the proper paperwork and documentation. Those that don’t could lose their nonprofit status. In addition, a number of new nonprofits have come online following Hurricane Sandy.

While urban areas provide the greatest opportunities for employment, these settings can also bombard the individual with excess stimulation. This frequently leads to sensory overload, increased anxiety, and agitation, according to AACORN’s business plan.

“One of the things about working in an agricultural setting is that it’s an atmosphere where there’s less noise and stimulation and it’s peaceful,” Pinto said.

The farm would employ agricultural professionals who would manage farm operations and work with the residents.

Money would be raised through the sale of the farm’s crops in addition to fundraising events and craft shows.

Similar farm-based programming for autistic adults is already happening in places such as Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse, Ohio and Benjamin’s Hope in Muskegon. Pinto said they are using Bittersweet Farms as the blueprint for AACORN.

“Other people have options in their lives, and people with disabilities should have them, too,” Pinto said. “We want to create as many options as possible in their community. People with disabilities need to be supported in the decisions they make in their own lives.”

Although “we’re all shocked by the increase in the rate of autism,” Pinto said she worries that what will happen when the adults with ASD age out of the educational system and their families must search for autism-specific care.

“Based on CDC prevalence rates and the approximate number of births per year — about 114,000 in the state of Michigan — we can predict that an additional 12,000 children per year will be born in the state of Michigan with an autism spectrum diagnosis,” Semark said.

AACORN hopes to offer those individuals options that do not currently exist today.

“What we are trying to do is to get ahead of the wave and bring something to Kalamazoo that will address a desperate need,” Pinto said.

Read 22326 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 12:22

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