For MaryAnn Lombardo, Eden Autism Services provides more than just a place for her son to go on weekdays.
“It’s made us a family,” said Lombardo.
Lombardo’s 29-year-old son, Anthony, is autistic. He is one of approximately 60 adults who will participate in the employment training program at Hamilton’s new Eden Autism Services Briggs/Dobias Adult Employment Centers on Crossroads Drive, which opened in January.
Since 13 sets of parents founded Eden Autism Services (then known as Eden Institute) in 1975, the organization has been dedicated to providing various support services to the autism community and its advocates.
Anthony Lombardo is nonverbal. He communicates with some sign language, and has self-abusive tendencies. He has used Eden’s services since he was 13.
Most recently, he has applied skills he learned in the adult employment training program to work in the community at places like the Princeton Garden Theatre, where he is a member of the cleaning staff five days a week.
“He’s regimented, and he’s got a smile on his face, and he’s happy he’s involved,” MaryAnn Lombardo said.
For the Lombardo family, the services that Eden provides were worth about a 40-mile move down the turnpike to Hamilton from Middlesex County. While Anthony Lombardo attended Eden as a teenager, he used a public school bus to commute to Mercer County.
But when he turned 21, he was no longer eligible to receive transportation from the state, and his parents decided to move closer to Eden so he could continue his training for employment.
Adults with developmental disabilities “age out” out of eligibility for state-funded programs, such as those provided through the public education system, at age 21.
To access state funding for the costs of services and supports to live in the community after age 21, adults can enroll on the Medicaid Community Care Waiver, or CCW. The CCW is administered by the New Jersey Department of Human Services’ Division of Developmental Disabilities and uses federal Medicaid money to provide services in the community for adults with developmental disabilities.
Families do not have to wait until the child’s 21st birthday to apply for DDD services. Federal law requires school districts to develop a plan for transition to adult services while children are still in their school program.
The plan is supposed to include services needed and how they will be provided. Usually through that process, families to initiate contact with DDD and begin the dialogue as to what the children will need and when, said Eden Autism Services president and chief executive officer Thomas McCool, who announced in February that he plans to retire in June.
Public funds are limited and can only serve so many individuals, and the state has to make decisions as to how they should be spent. Consequently, many people over the age of 21 with autism end up in limbo.
According to the Department of Developmental Disabilities website, there are approximately 10,000 adults on the waiting list. Pam Ronan, public information officer for the Department of Human Services, estimates the wait time for the Community Care Waiver today is at about 11 years.
“Many families are desperately keeping adults with disabilities at home in unsafe environments while they wait for openings,” McCool said in an email.
Eden Autism Services uses the Department of Developmental Disabilities as its funding and referral agency. To access its services, adults must either reach the top of the CCW waiting list or pay Eden privately.
Bob Titus’ 30-year-old autistic son, Joseph, spent seven years on the CCW waiting list before he was declared a health emergency. The status change helped expedite his case and gave him quicker access to the state funding his family needed for him to participate in Eden’s services.
Joseph Titus moved into an Eden group home in Hamilton seven years ago. Bob Titus said that Eden has changed his son’s life.
“This is the kind of place that parents of kids with autism that have particularly challenging behaviors are really looking for and hoping are available in their communities,” Titus said, “because they serve a purpose of getting, especially our adults, into community settings.”
And that’s what the new Briggs/Dobias Centers focus on. The centers provide an employment training program for adults with autism that teaches and builds the skills necessary to work in the center or in the community.
In the center, adults work on contract work, like mailing, stuffing envelopes and assembling products. In the community, adults have been employed throughout Mercer County and beyond at places like Wawa, the Princeton Garden Theatre, various doctors’ offices and more. As employees, they mainly perform cleaning, clerical or restocking duties.
“Our guys are very thorough,” said Mona Shahid, Eden’s coordinator of Adult Services and supervisor of the employment department. “Sometimes the compulsivity works in their favor because they make sure if they’re given a task, they do it well. The quality of their work is very good.”
Jamie Douglas, Eden’s managing director of Adult Services, said that at least 90 percent of Eden’s adults in the employment program engage in some community-based employment.
Douglas said adults with autism help to fill in the gap of jobs that most employees don’t want to do—those that are “repetitive, redundant, boring and don’t allow for a lot of social engagement” appeal to the pattern-centric tendencies and lack of communication skills inherent in autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects 1 in 88 children nationwide. And Autism New Jersey, a nonprofit statewide agency based in Robbinsville, asserts that 1 in 49 children in New Jersey is diagnosed with autism. As childhood prevalence rises, the autism community will continue to age, and as more and more people with autism cross the 21-year-old eligibility threshold, the problem of how to provide services for them all could become a full-blown crisis.
McCool said that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno’s attendance at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Briggs/Dobias Centers was a positive indicator that the state recognizes the importance of programming for adults. He also expressed his appreciation for Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede’s pledged support for expanding employment opportunities for adults with autism.
“It’s a very expensive program, because it’s labor intensive, to address the needs of these adults with autism,” McCool said. “And so we have, instead of seeing lack of support, have seen increased support from the Christie administration and the Division of Developmental Disabilities.”
McCool said the Briggs/Dobias Centers will be expected to reach its 60-client capacity by midsummer. He said Eden will continue to expand as possible, and the next project is the development of another similar facility, most likely in Middlesex County.
McCool said that getting adults with autism involved and employed in the community can not only help businesses, but it can spread awareness by “getting other people in the business to understand autism and work together to support someone who may need some extra support.”