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Community Support Programs for Young Adults with Disabilities

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We will be discussing community support programs for young adults with disabilities including those with autism spectrum disorders. With us today is Tom Fish, Director of Social Work and Family Support Services for Ohio State University’s Nisonger Center.

Can you describe the programs and activities at the Nisonger Center that you have developed and that you oversee which provide social supports within the community?

(Visual on DVD)

Social Support Programs

  • Young Adult Transition Corps (YATC)
  • Ohio Sibs
  • Friendship Connection
  • Next Chapter Book Club
  • Aspirations

Our young adult transition core is an AmeriCorps program designed to help young adults with developmental disabilities between the ages of sixteen and twenty two, to obtain certain skills related to community access, in other words being able to get around in the community, being able to understand the importance of community service, we have our AmeriCorps members working with young adults to develop community service projects, which identify needs in the community. And then lastly, we are really committed to helping these young adults develop social networks, because often times young adults how are transitioning from school to adult life just don’t have opportunities to socialize outside of school.

Another program that we offer is called Ohio Sibs. That is a program specifically for adults who have brothers and sisters with all sorts of disabilities, and the idea behind Ohio Sibs is that we try to give information and support, we have an annual conference for adult brothers and sisters because these people represent the next generation of caregivers, supporters, and advocates of people with disabilities.

We also run a program called Friendship Connection. This is a program designed to provide outings and social gathering opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities of all ages. The purpose behind Friendship Connection again is this whole idea of helping people to establish social networks so that they have people that they can trust and feel comfortable within their lives. We do all sorts of social outings, we have dances, we also have speed dating and a variety of other activities designed to really help people connect with one another.

Our Next Chapter Book Club is a program specifically designed for people with disabilities to meet in the community and have a book club experience with other people at all levels of intellectual ability. We have readers and nonreaders in practically every book club that we have. Book clubs meet for about an hour every week and there are two volunteer facilitators in each book club, and they read classics, and as I say many people don’t even read. But it’s all about three things, being in the community, meeting in a bookstore or café, that’s where we meeting only, we don’t meet in libraries, we don’t meet in schools, we meet in common place social settings. So the opportunity to be in the community, have a literacy experience because many times when people graduate from high school, who have intellectual challenges and social limitations, they’re not expected to be adult learners or be capable of being adult learners. The other thing is that they have an opportunity to be with their friends, the expressions from Cheers, I want to go where everyone knows my name, so that’s what the book clubs are all about, people getting together. We currently have over one hundred book clubs in fifteen states, and in Canada and Germany, and it’s expanding all the time. Because I think it’s so simple and people just getting together and being people.

The last program that I wanted to talk about is our Aspirations program. That is specifically designed for young adults who are transitioning from school to adult life who have high functioning autism. The program’s been in existence for close to six years now and we have served approximately one hundred young adults with high functioning autism. The purpose of the program is to give these young adults an experience with other people and to let them know they’re not alone, and to kind of give them some social and vocational guidance and support as they figure out what they’re going to do with transition. In addition, another really exciting component of our Aspirations program is the fact that we actively engage families and we do so through the families participating in a support information environment while their sons or daughters are in the nine-week Aspirations program. And then on a monthly basis we also have forums for families in conjunction with a monthly program that we run for everyone who has been through Aspirations, and we call that the recap program. That is everything to going on social outings to having speakers come in and speak about sexuality, and responsibility, and self-advocacy, and a variety of other things. So all of our social programs are really designed to help people network, to help people gather information and to help people become increasingly more independent.

Are these programs expensive and how are they funded?

Well it is relatively inexpensive, particularly because our Nisonger Center, which is associated with the Ohio State University, a lot of what we do is predicated on trainings so we have a variety of graduate students that participate in these activities. In addition our AmeriCorps program that I mentioned, we have eight full time AmeriCorps members, who are college students often times, or recent graduate from college and they help participate in all of the activities that I’ve just mentioned. So we keep our costs relatively low, we’ve been able to get foundation support, we’ve been able to get some individual donations and contributions from families and individual anonymous donors, and we continue to look for other sources of funding, but by in large we’re able to run these programs at a relatively inexpensive level and when participation is required from the families or individual participants, it’s relatively low.

What would be the first steps for someone who wanted to start one of these programs?

Well I think any program starts with a kind of charismatic person, someone who really has a vision, someone who’s willing to really stick it out, no program’s going to be embraced right away. I think all programs have their challenges, and yet if it’s a good idea, it usually will take shape. I think what I would advise a person to do is get support from either people like myself or other people with our programs to give them some guidance and suggestions, but by and large people know their local communities best and where the resources are, and sometimes you just have to kind of stick with it through thick and thin, because as I say, no program is just going to sky rocket it takes a lot of coordination, it takes a lot of commitment, and it takes convincing people not only the funding sources but the families in fact often times are the people that are responsible for getting their sons or daughters to activities, especially during the transition period. So we think it’s incredibly important with our book clubs and all the other programs that I’ve mentioned, to let the parents know that we value them and we want to answer any questions they have, dispel and misconceptions they might have, so that they can feel good about the program and not when it comes Thursday night say I don’t think I want to go, it’s not worth it. We want a good enough program so they’ll say, well I can’t miss this, it’s too much for me it’s too much for my child.

If someone wanted more information about these programs, is there a place they could call or look?

Absolutely, I can be reached at fish.1@osu.edu, or by phone at 614-292-7550. In addition, several of our programs have websites, our AmeriCorps (Young Adult Transition Corps) program’s website is yatcohio.org, and our Aspirations website is aspirationsohio.org, Aspirations phone is 614-292-4185, that’s a good place to start as well.