Home News Tribune – Craig Lillard, 23, of Princeton, is learning valuable job skills thanks to a new program offered by the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services.
Located on Rutgers’ Douglass Campus and led by the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, the center features a comprehensive program that is designed to support adults 21 and older with autism through a wide range of services specifically tailored to meet their individual needs.
According to Rutgers, an estimated 1 in 68 children nationally — 1 in 45 in New Jersey — is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Through high school, children with autism can get tutoring, mental health services, transportation and other resources to accommodate their unique needs, but once they leave the public school system, services diminish dramatically, leaving adults with little support outside of their families.
On Friday, state Senate President Steve Sweeney visited the center, where he learned about the center’s mission and programs, as well as met with Lillard.
“The Center for Adult Autism Services is working to accomplish something that I think everyone agrees should be our top priority,” Sweeney said. “It allows adults with autism to live as fulfilling a life as possible. We want everyone, no matter what challenges they face, to reach their fullest potential. This support can make a real difference in their lives. This is really very impressive. We really need these services throughout the state.”
Lillard is the program’s first participant. He joined in February and is working at Harvest Cafe at the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, learning skills that will allow him to live as independently as possible.
“This program has been so fantastic for him,” said his mother, Amy. “He’s never held a job before and here he is working at Harvest Cafe and loving it. He comes here to Rutgers with a smile on his face. He’s really been accepted into the Rutgers community and he loves being part of the community. I can’t even tell you how thrilled I am. It’s just huge.”
Her son, she said, currently buses the tables and just started to help with the stocking.
Four or five more participants are expected to join the program by December. Admission to the program is through an open application process.
“The center has been in conceptual design for about five years,” said Christopher Manente, executive director of the center. “The thing that makes the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services different from other providers is that we really have a core mission of changing the world for all adults with autism, not just the select few who will be coming to us on a day-to-day basis.”
The program will serve up to 60 adults with autism living on campus and within the surrounding communities, he said, adding “the experience will be transformational for them.”
“The center has a “core emphasis on employment,” Manente said. “We hope the majority of our employment opportunities will be on campus.”
Another goal is to teach currently enrolled Rutgers students how to assist people with autism.
“We will be developing the future practitioners in the field of adult autism services to go out in the world and be able to be agents of change wherever they might land,” he said. “Those future practitioners will be Rutgers students across all academic disciplines and at various levels. We want the best and brightest from various fields to come to the center and be inspired by the work we’re doing so they carry our mission out in the world with the same mission of changing the world for adults with autism. ”
The center also will be doing advocacy for policy and legislative reform, as well cutting-edge research and publishing best practices in adult autism services, Manente said.
The center is privately funded. A capital campaign is ongoing.
“Our Phase I capital campaign is a $20 million campaign,” Manente said. “We have $14 million in hand today. We need 100 percent to break ground. Once we reach our Phase I capital campaign goal to construct the day program building we will begin fundraising for the construction of the on-campus residential building.”
The facility will offer a pilot residential program for more than 20 adults with autism, who will work on campus and live alongside Rutgers graduate students in an integrated apartment-style residence, he said.
A campaign will be offered in the coming weeks offering donors the opportunity to name various aspects of the center, Manente said.
“Families tell us every day about their difficulties finding and maintaining high-quality services for adults with autism across the spectrum,” said Suzanne Buchanan, executive director, Autism New Jersey. “With the effective leadership of Senate President Sweeney and the entire Legislature, we can advance the availability and quality of adult employment, day, and residential programs across the state. As we’ve seen today, the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services is a unique and innovative example of the kinds of services adults with autism need and deserve. Through its commitment to research and best practices, the RCAAS will benefit not only its participants but also adults with autism throughout the world.”
“When it comes to autism, we are learning more and more about this disorder and we know that by helping children early on we can make a huge difference in their lives,” said Sweeney, who has a daughter with Down syndrome. “But adults living with autism need support as well, and we know that with the proper help people with autism can thrive.”
Additional information about the center is available at rcaas.rutgers.edu. For additional information about autism visit www.autismnj.org.