Santa Rosa program eases autistic adults into life's daily routines
Out of place.
It’s an awful way to feel. An adult with a significant degree of autism may want to flee a social, retail or work situation that seems perfectly agreeable to everybody else in the room because he or she is tormented by the slight flickering of a fluorescent bulb, or the irritation inflicted by a particular voice or background noise or bright color, or the frustration of just not fitting in to conversations.
At 36, Sean Daigle of Rohnert Park has lived since birth with the limitations imposed by both cerebral palsy and the highly prevalent, largely mysterious developmental disorder labeled as autism. More functional than some people on the autism spectrum and less so than many others, Daigle may never be able to live independently.
But he and his mother and caregiver, 63-year-old Wendy Mottola, say he’s doing much better since he enrolled in Passport to Independence, a new and cutting-edge educational program in Santa Rosa for adults with autism.
There may be nothing else in America quite like the thoughtfully designed space and curriculum at the Becoming Independent campus off of Sebastopol Road. Created and staffed with dollars from eight founding sponsors, the autism center features subdued paint colors, sound-absorption wall treatments, muted lighting, highly interactive technology and places to go when distractions and internal pressures become too much to bear.
Teacher Juliana Baumgartner, a graduate of Sonoma State’s Collaborative Autism Training and Support program, gives each student a laminated card that reads, “Excuse me while I take a break from reality.” They can use it if they find it necessary to take a breather from a class or activity.
Passport to Independence focuses on working with autistic adults in a highly individualized manner to help them understand their diagnoses, regulate anxiety, communicate and function better in public and social settings and, to the greatest extent possible, navigate life independently.
Daigle, an amiable, tall and dark-haired man, said from the apartment he shares with his mother that he learned in the program how to speak more clearly to people working at a coffee counter.
Also, he said, “They’re teaching me budgeting with my money, so I don’t spend it all in one place.”
His mother said the progress her son showed after just eight weeks in the program’s pilot class astounded her.
When the people at Becoming Independent invited sponsors to come see the newly completed autism center and hear the specifics of the curriculum in February, Daigle agreed to speak to the guests. Prior to the instruction and reinforcement he received in the pilot class, his mother said, he never would have addressed an entire group of people.
“I can’t describe the difference in Sean,” Mottola said. She said he’s become more comfortable around people and better at carrying on “let’s say, full, coherent conversation.”
Though consistency and follow-through have been difficult for Daigle, he never missed a class at Becoming Independent. And, his mother said, the positive attention and coaching have seemed to boost his confidence.
He also developed friendships with other students, Mottola said, though personal relationships have never come easily to him.
“The most important thing,” she said, “is he is much happier.”