Celebrating holidays at Sweetwater Spectrum, Sonoma’s autistic community

“We use, typically, the same decorations as well because it can be hard to to bring in new items into an environment.”|

For all of us, the holidays can be overwhelming, but for people with autism, a sensory disorder, the stress and joy of the season can feel different.

Someone with autism may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to specific sights, sounds, smells or textures. These differences can be positive, but it can also cause distress or discomfort. That makes Christmas at Sweetwater Spectrum, Sonoma’s assisted living facility for adults with autism, a delicate balance.

On Tuesday, the residents dedicated their art class to making ornaments to hang on the freshly cut Christmas tree that was brought in that morning.

“It’s to encourage creative expression and to get the residents excited about creating something,” said Jennifer Seago, a volunteer for the art enrichment program. “It’s really exciting because we get to see people develop individually.”

Sweetwater currently has four homes on site, with a total of 16 residents, each with different individual needs. Four residents sat at a table when the art session began, and more trickled in as time passed. It’s all about flexibility here — some residents stay and make art for the full hour while others come for just a few minutes.

“I like doing craft art because everybody is here. It’s nice,” said Jonathan Stuppin, a Sweetwater resident of two years. “I like how everybody is friendly.”

Stuppin spent the hour working on a gingerbread ornament and fraternizing with the other residents at the craft table, each of whom had their own aide for support.

Stuppin said art was his favorite enrichment activity, alongside playing music and volunteering. He knows four chords on his guitar and can play hundreds of pop songs. He prefers to play lullabies, however.

He, along with other residents, passed out water bottles and bananas to runners at the Napa-to-Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon. Next time, he said, it might be better to give them jelly beans.

Sitting across from Stuppin was Ashley Pease, dressed in full holiday attire, with an elf hat and a red Mickey Mouse Christmas sweater. She diligently decorated her snowman ornament.

Residents’ parents typically decorate the homes, but the staff puts up the outdoor lighting and festoons the community room. Such a simple holiday act takes immense planning at Sweetwater, however.

“It’s a routine we do every year, we use, typically, the same decorations as well because it can be hard to to bring in new items into an environment, so decorating for the holidays can be more or less of a process, and more or less easy for some of the residents,” said Olivia Vain, executive director at Sweetwater. “It’s kind of establishing a routine around it to change their environment here onsite and setting everybody up for success, so we plan ahead, we know when it’s going to happen, it’s on the calendar.”

The major difficulty for the residents is the change in routine, Vain said. If they are traveling home for the holidays, the staff coordinates with parents in advance so the residents have plenty of time to prepare. All of the holiday events are put on the calendar weeks earlier to ensure nothing is sprung on a resident at the last minute. That advance notice allows the residents to get excited and better enjoy the season.

“Residents get to be part of it — they know that the holidays are coming up and they start to process it in their own way,” Vain said.

Though many of the holiday events are on Sweetwater’s Fifth Street West property, some residents also like to participate in larger community events.

“I think with autism it’s this sort of notion that it’s very hard to be in social settings or loud environments and, yes that’s true,” Vain said, “but there’s also ways to work with somebody with autism to set them up for success so they can still participate and do all these things they want to do that can be challenging, and that is having a support network that knows how to set you up for success.”

Sweetwater resident Julia Pozsgai runs the art business Pansy Creations. She had a table last week at the Sonoma Community Center’s Winter Art Market. Vain said residents frequently go out to support Pozsgai and buy her work.

Maris Buesser, another Sweetwater resident, plays the flute for the Sonoma Valley Chorale.

“I think it’s quite surprising that many, many of our residents really enjoy going out in crowds, being part of the community and accessing all these things that could appear to be overwhelming,” Vain said. “It all comes down to meeting the person where they’re at and providing support to navigate any situation that can be stressful.”

At the end of the art class, the new “Santa Clause” movie was playing and it marked the start of the “hang out” period scheduled for right after the art session. Stuppin was the first resident to hang his ornament on the tree. He picked his spot carefully and secured it on the branch with a smile.

This will be the first Christmas he will spend without his father, Jack Stuppin, who died just a few days earlier. But Stuppin is excited to help Vain ring the bell outside of Safeway to raise money for Friends in Sonoma Helping, or FISH.

Vain is looking forward to the staff appreciation event they hold each year. The residents make cards and gift baskets full of candy for the staff members, who were the only people the residents had during the pandemic since many couldn’t go home to see their families . It’s the holiday event that draws the biggest turnout every year.

“I think Sweetwater really brings home the, ‘OK, you’re living in your home and you’re living where you basic needs are getting met, but what is really living life with purpose?’” Vain said. “Community integration, being part of the larger society, and I think Sweetwater has done that really well in a way that stands out to many other programs, and it’s a hard thing to do.”

For those interested in donating to or volunteering with Sweetwater, the organization is always in need of art supplies for its twice weekly sessions. It’s also accepting donations for its annual appeal fundraiser. Information on how to get involved can be found by vising Sweetwater’s website at sweetwaterspectrum.org, under the support tab.

“The community of Sonoma has been so good to Sweetwater. January will mark our 10th year open, and it has been amazing,” Vain said. “Our residents are part of the community and they are supported by the community and they truly are living a life that they want to live.”

Contact the reporter Rebecca Wolff at rebecca.wolff@sonomanews.com.

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