A FARM COMMUNITY AS A FOCUS FOR

PERSONS AND FAMILIES WITH AUTISM?

A hopeful idea is being discussed among people in Waterloo-Wellington who are concerned about good lives for their sons, daughters and friends who have autism spectrum disorders (ASD). A farm community could also offer supports and resources to all persons and families with autism who do not actually live there.

A farm community might combine all these roles:

  • a home and way of life for adults with autism
  • a place of work for visiting adults and co-op school students
  • a base for summer, weekend and day programs, and a place for weekend respite for children and youth
  • a node of expertise and understanding of ASD and helpful support strategies 
  • a symbol and focus for families, friends, and benefactors, now isolated and dispersed
  • a model community that is ecologically and environmentally responsible and also well integrated with the larger surrounding community.

These are ideas about how a farm community could help people with autism:

  • People with hypersensitivities to noise, heat and crowds can feel calmer and better able to cope when their environment is more spacious and quiet.
  • A small-scale farm community is easier to understand and cope with than the pressures and confusion of a complex urban or metropolitan society.
  • People have a good sense of purpose and interdependency as they work together on meaningful and necessary tasks every day and through the seasons of the year
  • A farm gives opportunities to develop special skills and interests in all the varied tasks of caring for the land, crops, trees, animals and poultry and in craft workshops
  • Members of the community and their families and friends can have a more sense of stability and security, to balance their anxieties about the future
  • Observation-based information, research possibilities and sharing of findings about “what’s different” and “what helps”.
Ideas for an ASD Farm Community and Centre in our region are being discussed. A Yahoo Discussion Group  has been set up. If you’d like to join in, visit   http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ASDFarmCommunityandCentre/
and request an invitation to join.

This is a preliminary statement of our vision for a farm community. The next opportunity to discuss the ideas in person will be on 1 November 2004, in the evening at Ignatius/Orchard Park north of Guelph.

 
CORE VALUES

  • Respect for the individuality, self-expression and quality of life of each person with ASD
  • Ensuring that families continue to have voices and leadership roles, with self-advocates also represented, as well as supporters from the larger community. We have to guard against domination by paid staff or managers, or by any particular group in the ASD cause.
  • Consensual decision-making in the planning stages--if there's disagreement on some big issue, we shouldn't act until we've worked through the problem. Perhaps use a PATH planning strategy (see below).
  • Inclusion and inclusiveness--both for the range of persons with ASD, and for the ASD community in relation to the larger society.

ESSENTIAL QUALITIES AND FUNCTIONS

  • A sense of shared purpose and hope among all members—persons with autism, family members, friends and professionals—so that all are represented in its leadership, management and sustained development.
  • A centre of excellence and expertise that provides for the needs of persons with ASD and their families, filling in the many gaps in present-day services, and going further–building on strengths, enhancing quality of life, optimizing each person's abilities, and supporting lifelong learning to reach full potentials.
  • Consultations and therapy of various kinds, to suit complex individual needs, are provided to people living onsite and offsite so families do not have to run around.
  • Various residential options including, for example: a) semi-independently in small individual homes but with support available when needed; b) by choice in small groups in larger homes with a family-like atmosphere and more support. There might also be on-site accommodations for parents/relatives/friends who are visiting their family member.
  • Many opportunities for work, paid and voluntary, in caring for crops, livestock and trees, and in related rural businesses or services for other members of the ASD community.
  • A base for co-op day programs, respite and summer camps.
  • A central store of resources for ASD individuals/parents and community (videos, therapy equipment, computers and software, laminators, printers).
  • Strong connections with the larger society outside the farm/centre to increase understanding of and interact with persons who have ASD.
  • A base for involvement by persons and families in research projects concerned with ASD--its causes, treatments, best caring practices, effective learning strategies.
  • Opportunities for University and College students to learn about ASD and train to become more effective teachers, support workers and other practitioners.

 
QUALITY OF LIFE FEATURES

        As well as the core values and functions, the resources of a landed property and the collective skills and enthusiasm of community members can allow for all sorts of "quality of life" features. Interesting and fulfilling activities are worthwhile in themselves for community members. They are also ways for friends from the larger society to visit and be involved in the ASD community, thus increasing awareness and understanding and making further connections.

      The following are just some features that would be compatible with a rural/farm community quite close to urban centres:

  • Sound ecological and environmental responsibility--in building styles, energy conservation, organic farming methods, water and waste management.  (It could be possible to get special funds for these).
  • Health and fitness--hiking and riding trails etc for year-round exercise outdoors; some indoor facilities as well—including relaxation rooms.
  • Sharing resources about various interventions and therapies. For example, with dietary intervention: community could host an organic buying club, have a diet kitchen for community members but also for sale to offsite member families, and co-ordinate purchase of supplements
  • Intensive horticulture, including greenhouses; production of eggs and honey
  • Sheltering rare plant and animal species, in keeping with our deep-rooted love and care for our special human beings. There could be breeding and sale of seeds, young stock etc.
  • Open days and a small petting farm for kids
  • Fostering and training young dogs that are going to be companions for children/adults with ASD
  • Therapeutic horseback riding
  • Craft skills of all kinds, with outlets for artistic talents and products that could be sold. Weaving has been found good for calming sensory and nervous systems, and pottery too....
  • Among various ways of interacting with larger community: a roadside shop and even tearoom; a couple of community celebration days each year (spring and fall?) 
  • A retreat shelter for carers who need a break....

 
OTHER THOUGHTS ON WHAT WE NEED

  • Continued deep thinking, sharing ideas and listening to one another about elements of the vision
  • Generous funding, intelligent and enthusiastic advocacy and superb community relations
  • Good insurance and impeccable policies for protecting vulnerable people against abuse
  • Leadership is critical: it must be constantly renewed and refreshed.
  • Carefully planned and co-ordinated systems of governance and administration that are consistent with the core values.
  • Ideas for how we might start—a pilot project that is effective by itself, but also part of a longer-term, consistent, holistic and integrated vision?

 
MORE INFORMATION

Look up the Network of International Farm Communities for Autism (NIFCA) at
http://www.autismnetwork.net/history.html

Read an interesting article (including discussion of Bittersweet Farms) by Prof. Margaret Schneider of Wilfrid Laurier University: “In Response to Deinstitutionalization: Farm Communities as a Housing Alternative for Individuals with Autism” Journal of Leisurability, 27, 1 (Winter 2000). http://www.lin.ca/resource/html/Vol27/V27N1A2.htm