We hear a lot about kids with autism, and for good reason: As the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., it affects one in 88 kids, compared to about one in 100,000 in the late 1980s. But what happens to those kids once they become adults? That’s the question one autistic boy’s family asked back in 2005. They could let their son live with them indefinitely, sure, but that raised the question of what would happen to him once they’re gone. Instead of waiting to find out, they got together with other families in similar situations, civic leaders, and autism professionals to come up with the groundwork for Sweetwater Spectrum, a nonprofit that has built the first housing community in the U.S. designed specifically for autistic adults.
The privately funded $9 million development will house 16 residents ages 18 and older on a three-acre site in Sonoma, California—the heart of wine country—just four blocks from the center of town. It’s an amalgam of learnings from other communities for the developmentally disabled across the country along with a study from Arizona State University that provides design goals for autism-focused community living.
Sweetwater Spectrum is a beautiful space in any context, but careful planning went into the design to make it comfortable for autistic residents. Everything is built to minimize unnecessary sensory stimulation, for example. "There were rigorous decisions about glare, patterns, shadows, and light control," explains Marsha Maytum of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, the San Francisco firm behind the project.
Residents live in one of four 3,250 square foot homes. The community features ample common areas, including a kitchen, exercise studio, one-acre organic garden, a greenhouse, a swimming pool, hot tubs, art and music room, teaching kitchen, and multi-purpose space. In typical Northern California fashion, that communal kitchen will be used in part for canning and jamming of produce picked from the garden. Says Maytum: "Part of the strategy we used was to always provide a variety of spaces ranging from public, semi-public, to private. There are opportunities for people to preview an activity or get away, take a break. There are places for people to be able to engage with other community members in a way that’s appropriate for them."
Sustainability and the use of healthy materials were at the top of the list for LMS Architects. The buildings, which all are constructed with low-VOC and nontoxic materials, are oriented to squeeze the maximum possible amount of electricity out of the rooftop solar photovoltaic panels. Natural ventilation was a sticking point in the design process—LMS would in most cases incorporate ceiling fans to make sure air moves consistently, but that was out of the question here because of the sounds and visual patterns that fans create. Instead, the architecture firm used a low-velocity ventilation air system evenly distributed throughout the building spaces.
The interest in Sweetwater Spectrum has been overwhelming, with inquiries from families around the U.S., and even internationally. "One family in Saudi Arabia said that if they thought it was a good spot, they would move lock, stock, and barrel," says Deirdre Sheerin, the CEO and executive director of Sweetwater Spectrum. The cost of living in the community, however, is steep. Rent costs $650 per month, but there’s a community fee of $2,600, bringing the total monthly cost to $3,250. Out of the 16 available spots, four or five residents will get discounted rent.
"It’s a lot of money, but we also have very expensive state of the art grounds and facilities that need to be kept up, and we want to be able to offer enrichment activities," says Sheerin.
The rent hasn’t kept applicants away. At the time of writing, Sweetwater had 18 active applications and five residents with leases or indication for leases. All applicants need to be on the autism spectrum or have an autism-related diagnosis, they have to want to live in a community, and they need to have a plan for care. "We have an abundant tolerance for a person with autism … but we also need to have a safe environment. There has to be certain level of acting-out behavior that can be managed through a treatment plan, an individualized plan for care," explains Sheerin.
There will be no typical day for Sweetwater residents—some will go to work during the day or head to the nearby junior college, others will participate in day programs for people with disabilities. Enrichment activities will be offered in the evenings and on weekends. Sheerin hopes that the community will have a robust group of volunteers.
Other autism organizations have already started inquiring about replicating Sweetwater. This is something that the nonprofit is still figuring out how to deal with. They could use a franchisee model, perhaps start a consulting arm. Sweetwater is committed to supporting other groups, but first, the nonprofit is participating in a research project with Dominican University to study whether its model of design and housing makes a difference in health, wellness, and exercise activity.
For now, Sweetwater is just figuring things out as it goes along.