Sweetwater Spectrum marks ribbon cutting
DEIRDRE SHEERIN, executive director of Sweetwater Spectrum, spoke prior to the ribbon cutting Saturday.
Years of work developing innovative solutions to the challenges of autism were celebrated on Saturday at the Sweetwater Spectrum on Fifth Street West. Dozens of Valley residents came to check out the new residential community for autistic adults, which includes four, four-bedroom, five-bathroom houses; a multi-use community room with a teaching kitchen; a pool; and, soon, a working farm.
“Autism now affects one in 88 children and is noted as being the fastest growing developmental disability,” said Deirdre Sheerin, executive director of the nonprofit Sweetwater Spectrum. “(Autism) resources were never directed to those under 22. But children that benefitted from that continued to have birthdays.”
Sheerin said in 2005, a group of families with autistic teenagers came together to discuss the future their children would have. They imagined a community complex, a space created especially for them that would address the environmental sensitivities common in autism. They began reaching out to experts, such as a study on designing spaces for autistic individuals conducted at the Arizona State University Stardust Center and School of Architecture. Their advisory board attracted top minds such as Dr. Bryna Siegel, director of the autism clinic at UCSF; and Dr. Marjorie Solomon, a professor of psychology at UC Davis specializing in autism.
“We’re a start up organization. There’s no blue prints, there’s no business plan here,” said Mark Jackson, president of the board of directors, whose son, Christopher, will be a resident at Sweetwater. “I can honestly say there’s nothing like Sweetwater anywhere in the world, yet.”
The space, designed by architects Leddy Maytum Stacy and built by Midstate Construction, includes earth-tone colors, open sightlines, expansive natural light and soundproofing. These design elements specifically meet the environmental needs of those living with autism, making it the only residential complex known to exist exclusively for autistic adults.
Jackson said Sweetwater is now getting calls daily, from all across the U.S. to as far away as Saudi Arabia, from other parents inquiring about how to build a similar model in their own community. Sweetwater Spectrum has received dozen of applications from families interested in joining the community, and on Saturday three of those future residents learned they officially had a place at Sweetwater.
“We as a city have been given an enormous gift. Sonoma Valley has long been home to a diverse base. Our community benefits from that base,” said City Councilmember Tom Rouse. “We look forward to the life we will share together.”
Construction is expected to be finished in the next six weeks, allowing the 16 new residents to move in just after the New Year. Sheerin said there is still work to be done as a country since 85 percent of those living with autism are currently under the age of 22.
“This remarkable statistic means a huge surge is gathering speed,” she said, explaining that Sweetwater will serve as a model for one option to help foster independent living.
“What kind of life will our sons and daughters with autism have?” she asked. “A life with purpose.”