Sunday, March 13, 2011

Illinois program aids adults with autism with life skills

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

ELGIN, Ill. — It’s a Friday morning, and Robert Larios and Leonard “Tucker” Banks (pictured) are trying hard to concentrate on their work. The task: match up 10 large nails on a sheet of paper to outlines of the nails, then place the nails in plastic containers.

Their duties come with a purpose beyond packaging hardware. The young men, both in their 20s, are among a dozen or so participants in a new program for adults with autism spectrum disorders that the Association for Individual Development began this year at the organization’s Elgin and Aurora facilities.

Such duties give participants a sense of structure that helps builds their life skills, AID staff said. They also are being paid for their labor.

According to a press release for the program, it “emphasizes building on a person’s interests, offering a predictable schedule and teaching tasks as a series of simple steps ... and creates opportunities for them to participate in their community.”

In addition to learning and working, the participants’ week at the Elgin facility typically includes swimming on Tuesday, grocery shopping on Wednesday, and an outing on Friday afternoons. Program manager Jasun Liepitz said the outings have included a trip to the large Cabela’s store in Hoffman Estates, bowling, shopping at a mall, and heading to Costco for pizza.

Liepitz and rehabilitation manager Echo McShane oversee the Elgin effort. Both have completed a 17-course curriculum on autism.

Autism and developmental disabilities consultant Nicole Todd-Melquist of Practical Approaches Consulting in Romeoville makes frequent visits to the AID program.

Todd-Melquist said the program is a work in progress that can be tailored to the needs of those in the sessions and adjusted accordingly to what seems to help grow skills. The range of the autism spectrum is such that while there are common behaviors, there are many differences in how the debility presents itself. And those in the program need a good deal of personal attention.

According to statistics from the Autism Society, autism “is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.”

That can mean not being able to put things into words. So participants in the program have notebooks with cartoon-like pictures noting what they will be doing during segments of each day. The drawings are laminated and are attached to pages with Velcro at the start of the day, then removed and put into a pouch in the notebook when completed.

Those in the program also are being taught rudimentary sign language. And two specially programmed iPads are used on field trips to help all understand each other, too.

Staff said it is important for the participants to learn choice in their daily routines, but at the same time routine is the foundation on which they can learn. So a day can include self-care, housekeeping, cooking and laundry detail, art, music, exercise and even spending time in a room being set up for sensory exploration.

It also might mean using a shredder — the vibrations of which seem to hold the attention of some with autism — as a stepping-stone tool leading up to tasks such as boxing nails or bagging golf tees.

Statistics show 1 percent of children in the United States fall somewhere along the autism spectrum. As that population ages, the AID program is a sign of needed things to come for families, social service agencies and the communities they serve.

According to the Autism Society, about 1 million to 1.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder, with the bill for autism care totalling about $60 billion each year. The group claims that in 10 years, that amount might rise to more than $200 billion, with the costs of caring for someone with autism spectrum disorders through his or her lifetime approaching $3.2 million per person.

AID already is seeing a backlog in the need for what it provides.

The organization serves more than 5,400 Fox Valley area residents with developmental disabilities, mental illness and special needs. According to AID President and CEO Lynn O’Shea, there were 1,550 people on a waiting list for its services as of early March. Of those, 398 have been diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorders.

The new program’s start-up costs were about $35,000, O’Shea said. Funding for it came from the Coleman Foundation and the EFS Foundation. Other community groups, including the Knights of Columbus and the Kiwanis, have been supportive, too, O’Shea said.

All of the participants are bused back and forth to their homes in nearby towns, although Luke Dillon would have you convinced otherwise.

When asked where he lives, Dillon responded, “Plainfield.”

“He has a good sense of humor. He likes to kid,” Liepitz said.

And like many of the rest of us, when not occupied with the program, on weekends, “I like to sleep in,” Dillon said.