Demand for autism services for adults, families increasing in North Texas cities

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Demand for autism services for adults, families increasing in North Texas citiesWhen Taylor Thomas was 18 months old, her parents knew something was wrong. She was missing some common developmental milestones, especially in regard to her speech and motor skills.

Doctors at first told Hal Thomas and his wife that they were overreacting, but the couple kept looking for answers. Finally, when Taylor was age 5, they got their answer: autism.

Throughout Taylor’s childhood, she participated in special needs programs, including those offered in the public school system. She was able to remain in school until she was 22, as the state law allows for some individuals enrolled in special needs programs. But now that Taylor is 23, her parents are having a difficult time finding adult programs for her to attend, especially in Frisco, Hal said.

“When these kids leave [school], then these parents pull them back,” he said. “And unfortunately, unless there is a program or a place where they can involve themselves collectively in the community as adults … most families are going to isolate them.”

Autism is a developmental disorder that includes a range of symptoms with varying severity, including communication and social issues, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Though it can be difficult to track the prevalence of autism in adults, it is estimated that one in 68 children in the United States has autism, or about 1 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Frisco, that would be an estimated 1,700 people with autism.

What many adults with autism need is continuing education and job training, said Charmaine Solomon, co-founder and chairwoman for My Possibilities in Plano. My Possibilities provides full-year educational programs for adults with cognitive disabilities.

Solomon said many adults with autism have the skills to have a job but may need additional help or direction.

“Our employers need to be more open-minded about what jobs that these adults could do,” she said. “Companies need to be educated about the valuable resources these adults with special needs can offer to companies.”

The demand for educational programs for adults with cognitive disabilities has grown so much in North Texas that My Possibilities is building a new and larger campus in Plano.

Other programs farther south in Dallas are also experiencing the demand. Some programs at the Autism Treatment Center are full, Clinical Director Carolyn Garver said. The center serves children and adults through therapy, educational programs and residential services.

Garver said about 80 percent of adults with autism are unemployed.

“A lot of individuals lose their jobs not because they can’t do the work or they’re not qualified; it’s because their social deficits impair them so greatly that they have behavioral issues and they end up losing their jobs,” she said. “A lot of them are very qualified, it’s just that it has to be the right employer who understands the nuances of autism.”

Along with the need for more job training, Garver said many families are also looking for housing options that support adults with cognitive challenges. Some programs offer permanent or temporary group homes, assisted-living care or in-home care, which can be expensive for families.

State funding for programs is limited, which is why some programs are privately funded, Garver said. Both the Autism Treatment Center and My Possibilities are nonprofits.

Solomon said the state funding that is available is not enough to meet the demand for services in the area.

“It takes a lot of money and resources to provide these programs to people with special needs because they definitely need more hands-on [training],” she said.

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Lindsey Juarez

Lindsey has been involved in newspapers in some form since high school. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2014 with a degree in Journalism. While attending UTA, she worked for The Shorthorn, the university's award-winning student newspaper. She was hired as Community Impact Newspaper's first Frisco reporter in 2014. Less than a year later, she took over as the editor of the Frisco edition. Since then, she has covered a variety of topics and issues important to the community, including the city's affordable housing shortage, the state's controversial A-F school accountability system and the city's "Bury the Lines" efforts.

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