The numbers are staggering. 500,000 children with an autism spectrum disorder will become adults over the next 10 years – each with his/her own unique needs. Current public housing options are extremely limited due to deep-rooted constraints in financing. In 2008, there were only 930 public housing units developed for people with special needs across the country, coming nowhere close to meeting the demand.
Public housing programs such as the HUD 811 program, Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), Section 8 Rental Assistance, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding and HOME funding are very cumbersome and competitive, creating a disincentive to the private sector. Some experts believe that The Frank Melville Supportive Housing Investment Act of 2009 will be an excellent way to help increase the number of units made available through the HUD 811 program by taking money previously set aside for the construction of new units and instead using it as rental assistance in existing units. This change is estimated to triple the number of individuals served each year. Some also suggest that a great start to addressing the housing challenge would be expanding the LIHTC program, the nation's leading pubic financing vehicle to generate affordable rental housing, to include requirements that 10 - 20% of units developed be set aside for people with special needs.
Ask any child what they want to be when they grow up and you will get a variety of answers reflecting a wide array of jobs that they deem important or fascinating. Ask incoming college students about the career paths they want to pursue and the answers will reveal their interests, strengths and talents, what they think is important to society, and what they think will allow them to support themselves financially. In other words, they want to work in jobs that provide meaning to their lives and to the lives of others. They want a sense of community, purpose, accomplishment, and pride. The same is true of people with autism. When a person with autism exits the educational system we should be measuring the rate at which jobs are obtained and employment is sustained. Right now it is believed that while the vast majority of adults with autism want the opportunity to work, 80-90% of them are currently unemployed. This is simply unacceptable.
Many employees in the American workforce require special accommodations to meet their needs. Special seating, ergonomically correct keyboards, childcare, and flexible work schedules are just a few examples of adjustments made to support the ability of these individuals to maintain employment. Research has shown that individuals with autism can work competitively with supports specific to their uniquely challenging needs. In working with a variety of people across the autism spectrum, it is important to have supports from job coaches and employers, as well as coworkers of individuals with autism. More significantly, it is important to match people with jobs in areas that reflect their interests and their strengths.
Unfortunately, the system as it currently exists falls short in serving the growing number of adults with autism looking to work. Supports don't start soon enough. There isn't enough funding to provide the supports needed. Time-limited supported employment programs end too soon.
Most of us define who we are by what we do for a living, where we live, what we do with our free time, and our public and private social circles. All of these things help construct what we define as meaningful and productive lives. They help measure the quality of our lives. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, many people with autism live isolated lives. "A meaningful, productive life is the goal for everyone, including people with autism. Adults with autism can succeed when the system supports them and society steps up and address their needs. We do have the systems, we just need them to be effective for everybody," says AFAA Leadership Council member Patricia Wright of Easter Seals.
Doors must be opened and barriers brought down so that individuals with autism have the opportunity to be the valuable, contributing members of the community that they are capable of being. People with autism can succeed as valued, productive members of their communities with the proper supports. Such supports include, but are not limited to: skilled, compassionate personnel in schools and community-based programs; ongoing daily life and social skills training that continues beyond graduation from the educational system; and support in the workplace.
According to Peter Gerhardt, PhD, "The problem is that society does have a very negative perception. This is a truly significant barrier to lives of inclusion and dignity for individuals with autism." Increased public awareness is inextricably linked to the success of persons who have an autism spectrum disorder. Much has been done to educate the public about the effects of autism on children. However, as the average age of these children increases, so too, must the focus of their needs. The broader the understanding of the needs of adults with autism, the brighter their futures.