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A Successful Autism Group Home

What makes for a beneficial living situation for autistic people?

Key points

  • Although autism families may fear residential placements for their loved ones, often these are positive choices.
  • The formula for residential success for autistic adults is compatible housemates and well-trained staff.
  • It is not the size but rather the oversight and accessibility to families that keeps an autism residence safe and successful.

I rarely cry now when I drop off my autistic son at his group home. Not like I used to. Now the tears are bittersweet: missing him mixed with a tender pride. Back then, though, I feared that I was giving up on him by sending him to residential school at the tender age of 17. But my husband and I finally decided that he would do better living in a structured environment with others who had similar needs and challenges and staff who knew what they were doing.

Finding a good group home

To me, similar needs and challenges meant that Nat would not seem strange or alien to anyone there, and the trained support workers would be better prepared than we were. And so, Nat transitioned beautifully to the house. We loved the manager, who had a ready smile and a can-do attitude. Nat’s housemates went to his school, so there was nice continuity for them. But still, every weekend when I dropped him off I would cry on the way back. I worried that he would feel like I didn’t love him, that I had abandoned him. Even if all outer evidence pointed to the fact that he was content there, I felt so sad saying goodbye on Sundays.

Nat is now 32 and is still living in a group home setting. When my husband dropped him off recently he said, “There’s a party going on in there.” But it wasn’t an actual party; it was simply five housemates listening to '90s music with staff helping them remember the lyrics. It was Nat—so often silent—singing along. It was one other housemate grinning nonstop because one of the new staff happens to be young and pretty. It was a scene of happy chaos, and I could drive away smiling.

Residential living for the disabled, past and present

The federal government, which funds Nat’s group home of five considers this type of setting to be ideal. The five-person group home is a community-based living situation, i.e., a non-institutional setting. Institutions were largely disbanded in the 1970s and 1980s and are widely considered terrible choices for people like Nat because of how isolated they were from the general community. The isolation and staff ignorance of those places led to horrible abuse, torture, and death of many of the inmates. Because they were never seen in public, they never interacted with typical citizens, and society had a poor understanding of the potential and the humanity of the developmentally disabled, the residents in institutions suffered horribly. Oversight was terrible and society—and people’s minds—were closed, so this type of care was allowed to continue until a news exposé forced the issue. Small group homes then became popular and inclusion in society became the watchword of the world of severe disability.

But is it about the society, the town that surrounds Nat’s home that makes it flourish? Not always. A group home flourishes when its residents get along and stick together; when the staff are well-trained and professional, and when there is caring oversight. But group homes are not immune to neglect, injuries, and even death, just like the congregate institutions of the past.

Innovations in group living

Many families in the last few decades have decided that there is nothing magical about a group of five. The magic, these families feel, is in the staff, the surroundings, and the strict oversight. They believe that there is a difference between a monolithic, uncaring institutional warehouse and a large community of autistic people living together. Farms and whole villages of autistic people have sprung up across the country, communities painstakingly put together by families and professionals. Overseen by trained caregivers and accessible to families. They all have the same goals in mind: a caring home where their autistic loved ones can thrive. Just like an assisted living complex of seniors.

Does one size fit all?

Yet many advocates oppose these larger arrangements for people like Nat. They say it is not inclusive if it is too large. They imagine that if everyone has the same severe disability, that there will be no growth, and no healthy socializing. The thinking is that the disabled residents must be mixed in with a typical neighborhood, in a house for five, in order to be healthy and safe. This has been true for Nat. But not because of the number of housemates or the location; the success of his home is the camaraderie of the men, and the skill and care of the staff. And although the housemates are all developmentally disabled, they have fun and learn from one another. Nat’s house works precisely because the men are similar in need and experiences. Nat did not do well in a more typical environment (living in our house with his brothers). Our neighbors’ children never played with him. He was rarely invited to birthday parties. He was the "weird" kid, no matter what we did to help.

The safety I feel for Nat now is largely about the housemates themselves. They are each other’s role models. They don’t need a more “normal” group of peers to learn from. They learn from each other. “I look out for Nat,” one of them told me last month. I am satisfied that there are many "eyes on," and that I am always welcome to come inside and ascertain the safety for myself.

Perhaps society has learned from the horrible mistakes of the past. If 10 autistic adults choose to live supported by their families and trained staff—whether in a big Victorian house together, or start a farm or build a village separate from society—shouldn’t they be given that opportunity, just as Nat has the opportunity to finally have friends who “get” him? Families, after all, come in all shapes and sizes.

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