Cape Cod Times
By CHRISTINE LEGERE
October 20. 2014 2:00AM
Local parents with two autistic sons are asking Dennis special town meeting to help create housing for what they say is an underserved population
PHOTO/ Courtesy of the Ohman family
The Ohman family, from left, Liam, Kathy, Jon, John and Patrick.
SOUTH DENNIS – Dennis parents Kathy and John Ohman are experts on autism – two of their three sons have been diagnosed with the disorder. Now the couple is part of an organization asking town meeting to help create housing for what they say is an underserved population.
Eighty percent of adults with autism live at home once they “age out” of special education programs at 22, said Kathy Ohman, who is president of Friends Or Relatives With Autism & Related Disorders, or FORWARD. That means there is little opportunity for social involvement and a lack of a clear plan for a future when parents can no longer care for them, she said.
“It's an isolated existence for these autistic kids at home,” Kathy Ohman said. “We're talking about people with very limited speech skills and severe anxiety.”
FORWARD hopes to create housing on 4.9 acres of town-owned land off Hokum Rock Road. An article on the Oct. 28 special town meeting warrant asks voters to make the land available for a small housing community for adults with autism and related disorders.
FORWARD would lease the land from the town for a “nominal” amount and cover the cost of housing construction with grants, loans and proceeds from fundraisers, according to the article. State law requires the town to put the land out for requests for proposals, but the request will be tailored to the project proposed by FORWARD.
The current plan calls for building four homes, each containing four suites. The community would accommodate 16 tenants in all. A professional staffer would live in each home, providing around-the-clock support to the residents. There would also be a common meeting area for get-togethers and events.
Operating expenses would be covered by payments provided to the tenants by government social service agencies.
In an open letter to the community, Kathy Ohman said FORWARD envisions “an environment where people with challenging communication and social skills feel comfortable in a shared living situation with 24/7 supervision.”
Autism is formally called Autism Spectrum Disorder because of the wide range of symptoms and levels of impairment, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.
It is characterized by social interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency toward repetitive behavior.
Diagnosis rates are skyrocketing, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2000, 1 out of every 150 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. In 2010, the number had jumped to 1 in 68.
Experts attribute some of the increase to better diagnosis, but they are still working to identify causes.
The Ohmans' younger two sons – born after their son Liam who is now 25 – were both diagnosed with autism before the age of 5. Jon, 23, is considered high functioning and he earned an associate degree from UMass Amherst's Stockbridge School of Agriculture and is now earning a bachelor's degree in equine and canine massage from UMass Amherst. It's taken a great deal of hard work but he is very self-motivated, Kathy Ohman said.
He has a driver's license, car and his own dorm room, she said. “He is a good self-advocate, and he's demonstrated he can live independently.”
Their youngest son Patrick, 21, however, is at a different spot on the autism spectrum.
“The hallmark of the disorder is anxiety and severe communication difficulties,” Kathy Ohman said. “Patrick speaks softly and stutters. He has limited social skills and isn't even able to hold a conversation with people.”
He currently attends a day program offered by Cape Abilities, after recently finishing up at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, where he took courses in graphic arts, helped in the copy room, worked on the school's cardboard recycling program and laundered the uniforms of the football team.
Now, he is about to turn 22 – the cut-off age for state-provided special education programs.
“As people age out of public education, some move on to group homes, and we anticipate Patrick will go into a group home,” his mother said. At this point, that group home would be off-Cape, since no facilities exist in the area.
There is at least one other project similar to FORWARD's in the works on the Cape. The proposal calls for a cluster of group homes, planned by Cape Cod Village Inc. The organization is purchasing 4 acres in Orleans with the help of Community Preservation Act funds.
Dennis selectmen agreed to place the Hokum Rock Road article for the land on the upcoming town meeting warrant, and the project has already won the endorsement of both the selectmen and finance committee.
“FORWARD has worked long and tirelessly to develop a modest but impactful proposal that will go a long way towards providing long-term housing to an important and deserving part of the Dennis community,” Town Administrator Richard White wrote in an email. He added the nonprofit organization included a variety of local groups in shaping its proposal.
“Through their work they have provided a great service to the town,” White said. “Hopefully town meeting will reward them by endorsing the selectmen's proposal on the Hokum Road lot.”
Rick Presbrey, CEO of the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis, said his agency will help find funding for the project down the road.
“These parents have a right to worry about their growing children,” Presbrey said. “They approached us and we're enthusiastically willing to help. There is a variety of specialized state resources we'll go after.”
Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @chrislegereCCT.