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Adults with autism face the harsh reality of limited support services

Echoing Hope Ranch is a 10 acre land that serves as a residential service to adults with autism. Along with its four houses, it features a chicken coop, an alpaca farm, two greenhouses, a garden, two ponds and sheep running around the grass. (Photo by Joanna Daya)

Echoing Hope Ranch is a 10-acre land that serves as a residential service to adults with autism. Along with its four houses, it features a chicken coop, an alpaca farm, two greenhouses, a garden, two ponds and sheep running around the grass. (Photos by Joanna Daya)

In a quiet area in Hereford, Arizona, stands a ranch that is different from all others.

The 10-acre Echoing Hope Ranch, built in 2009, has four houses, a chicken coop, a couple of alpacas, a garden with two greenhouses, two ponds with koi fish and catfish, a grassy space for goats to run, a bench and a tire swing.

Here, residents are free to play and relax. In the background flows the San Pedro River, where millions of birds migrate to and different species of mammals live.

Although some of its features may make it look like a typical ranch, its purpose is different. Echoing Hope Ranch is a nonprofit organization that serves as a home for adults with autism.

In 2014, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children were diagnosed with autism nationwide, and one in 64 in Arizona. As children with autism grow up, the services available become harder to find. By 2023, there will be about 380,000 adults with autism who will need residential services, predicts the Department of Health and Human Services. According to a study done by the National Autistic Society, 49 percent of adults with autism live with their parents and 70 percent need support services.

Echoing Hope Ranch rents out its living space to autistics who are 18 years and older. They must have a capability for some independence. The ranch also provides day programs for others in the community, where they learn basic household skills and gain experience into what having a job is like.

“In the houses, it’s pretty routine — they wash windows, take out the garbage, sweep the porch, sweep and mop the floors inside, dust. Pretty much anything that we do in our own homes, they do the same thing, just the general upkeep of the house,” said Darryl Clark who works with residents at the ranch. “As far as an outside job, we have the garden, so they help with planting and weeding. We also have custodial (services) as a job.”

Independence is the program’s theme.

One of the residents had to figure out another way to dry their clothes after his dryer broke. "His dryer broke, so he had to figure out another way to dry his clothes, and he did," Darryl Clark said. "That's just a good example of what we do here. We teach them how to be independent and do things on their own." (Photo by Joanna Daya)

One of the resident’s dryer broke. “So he had to figure out another way to dry his clothes, and he did,” Darryl Clark said. “That’s just a good example of what we do here. We teach them how to be independent and do things on their own.”

“The goal here is we’re not cooking for them; we’re not cleaning for them. We get them to do as much as possible. We’re not doing the stuff for them per se,” said Julie Cresswell, day program coordinator for the ranch. “This is more hands-off. … It’s more of saying, ‘OK, this is how you do that,’ and then try to let them do it on their own rather than do everything for them.”

People associate autism with children. However, it is a lifelong disability. While there is a myriad of programs to help children with autism, services tend to become less available once the youths grow up.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, commonly generalized as autism, is a complex mental condition caused by gene changes or mutations, and “a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors” that essentially end up influencing how the brain develops in the early years, according to Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization that funds autism research. It affects a person’s social interaction skills, communication skills and behavior, and is characterized in varying degrees. Signs of autism usually appear between 2 and 3 years old, and it is a condition that will stay in a person’s life, no matter how old they get.

“Everybody thinks of kids and say, ‘Oh, we want to help kids,’ but kids grow up, and they still need services,” said Tamara Bills, program director for the Tucson Alliance for Autism. “The misconception is they grow up and everybody is ‘Rain Man.’ It’s not like that.”

The non-profit Tucson Alliance for Autism focuses on services regardless of age — from programs for children to support groups for families and parents of people with autism. Bills said a “big need” in the autism community is having programs and services that will cater to adults with varying degrees of autism.

“Since it’s a spectrum, you have everything from nonverbal, real low functioning, like they need help bathing, eating, going to the toilet, dressing,” Bills said. “It definitely runs the gamut, too. You’ve got folks who are high-functioning who maybe just need some classes in social skills. What we try and and do is be the clearing house for those resources.”

According to a National Autistic Society study, 92 percent of parents of adults with autism are worried about what will happen in the future, when services aren’t as available. Clark said homes such as Echoing Hope Ranch have a high importance in the autism community.

“It’s teaching them independent living; it’s teaching them how to be adults,” Clark said, “whereas other services are more hands-on in the way that they do everything for (the autistic residents), and they are left feeling like they’re children even though they’re all grown adults.”

“What I’ve noticed with autism, in general, is kind of like how everybody sees a movie differently,” Clark added. “(Autistics) still go through the general things that everybody else does growing up — going into adulthood and learning how to work in the world as an adult — but they just see it and go through it differently. It’s just trying to adapt and grow with the change in services or the change in their home.”

Joanna Daya is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at jofran15@email.arizona.edu.

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