Residential community to open for autistic adults
THIS ARCHITECTURAL RENDERING shows what the Sweetwater Spectrum campus at 19347 Fifth St. W. will look like when it is completed next fall.
Those who understand the complexities of autism know that the nation is facing a great, and rapidly growing need.
"Eighty-five percent of people with autism are under the age of 22," said Mark Jackson, the father of a 19-year-old autistic man. Jackson serves on the coordinating council of the California Senate Select Committee on Autism.
The question becomes how does America deal with the proper care of this expanding segment of the population, which grew at a rate of 1,148 percent in the past 20 years, according to the California Department of Developmental Disabilities. The number of facilities equipped to deal with the special needs of autism are few and far between - more than 80,000 autistic adults are currently waiting up to 10 years for placement in a residential facility. Those daunting statistics inspired a group of Bay Area parents to envision a better option for their autistic children. What they came up with is a revolutionary concept that will take root in Sonoma but could serve as a national model.
"It literally started with 'Where are our kids going to live?'" Jackson said. "We ultimately decided this is bigger than just us."
The parents, aided by an advisory board that includes some of the state's top experts on autism, established the nonprofit Sweetwater Spectrum, which will build a residential living facility exclusively for adults living with autism. The project will be located at the northwest corner of Fifth Street West and West Spain Street, on a 2.9 acre piece of land that the City of Sonoma previously owned, and which was zoned for 14 residential properties. Sweetwater Spectrum won wholehearted support from the City Council, sailed through the Planning Commission and Design Review Commission, and is set to break ground on Sept. 10, with the hopes to have the entire project completed within a year.
"This is the base model and philosophy from which other projects will grow," said Jackson.
The project includes four 3,400-square-foot, four-bedroom, five-bathroom homes that will house a total of 16 residents.
There will also be a 2,350-square-foot activity center with a teaching kitchen, media room and gym; a full sized therapy pool; a welcome center with a studio apartment for a caretaker; and a certified organic garden with a greenhouse and fruit tree orchard. The total building cost is $9 million, which will be funded entirely through private donations.
"Generous families and friends got behind this project," said Deirdre Sheerin, a Sonoma resident with a long history of work in the nonprofit sector who was named executive director of Sweetwater Spectrum.
The project was designed by the San Francisco-based Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, which is known for its environmental building practices. The building includes green design elements ranging from living walls in the courtyard to a bioswale around the property.
The space was also designed using information collected in a study at Arizona State University about the best environment for autistic individuals.
"They took into consideration sound, light and color," Sheerin said, explaining that autistic individuals can be sensitive to these environmental triggers and often need quiet spaces with dim lighting. "Part of the design was based on a study out of ASU on those sensitivities."
Jackson said the location was specifically selected because of its proximity to town - organizers wanted a space where residents could be active in the community. Sweetwater Spectrum will bring in specialists to work with its clients on life skills ranging from how to pay bills to how to cook, while also helping find employment opportunities around the Valley.
"The residents learn how to live their own lives," Sheerin said. "The intent is to be the solution."
Residents will pay rent and can live on the property forever or until they feel capable of moving out on their own. Jackson said parents of autistic children frequently have to move their child around to different facilities, and Sweetwater Spectrum wanted to offer a more permanent home to avoid changes in housing.
In addition to rent from residents, the nonprofit plans to secure ongoing revenue through its organic garden. While some of the produce will be used by the residents for meals, much of it will be sold to restaurants or at local farmers markets. Residents will be invited to work in the garden or help staff a booth at the farmers market.
"We expect it to be a cash generator," Jackson said, adding that a local gardener has already signed on to help oversee installation of the garden.
Sheerin said the organization is still working out the details of what residents would pay to live in the facility, as well as the admission criteria that will be considered to decide who will move in when the facility opens next fall.
There is no shortage of interest - families across America are clamoring to have their children join the inaugural class at Sweetwater Spectrum.
"There's a bottomless demand," Jackson said. "We have families with children as young as 12 that want to get on a waiting list."
The Sweetwater Spectrum board is also courting the academic world, hoping to have a university study this residential facility model to provide data on its benefit to autistic adults. Students at Sonoma State University, which offers courses in working with autistic individuals, will also be invited to work with residents to enhance the classroom experience.
"There's a lot of opportunities for the community to get involved," Jackson said, adding that they will also invite groups in to offer workshops, classes and other enrichment opportunities for clients.
Jackson said groups of parents are already seeking the expertise of the Sweetwater board to build similar facilities across the country. More commonly, autistic people are lumped together at residential facilities that cater to a wide breadth of developmental disabilities, which is not an ideal environment.
"Their communication issues are way more severe than people with down syndrome," Jackson said, explaining that autistic individuals cover a wide spectrum of needs that must be addressed individually. "There's a saying in the autism world that if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."
Ultimately, the Sweetwater Spectrum board hopes that the success of their model will inspire the government to look at new ways of caring for autistic adults in society.
"It's going to push a paradigm shift in how we deal with special needs," Sheerin said. "Sheer numbers are going to force us to look at these things in a different way. The system of care is going to have to change."
The groundbreaking ceremony is open to the public and takes place from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Sept. 10, where local politicians are expected to speak and a breakfast will be served.
For more on the project, visit www.sweetwaterspectrum.org.