September 18, 2009
Louis A. Vismara: With housing that caters to all, we all win
By Louis A. Vismara
Louis A. Vismara
Cynthia Hubert's June 28 article in The Bee, "As autism comes of age, caregivers are worried," told a compelling story of how unprepared California is as the approaching tsunami of autistic children reaches adulthood. I read it with great appreciation for the light it shed on this insidious problem – and with personal heartache. My own son, Mark, was diagnosed with autism 14 years ago, when there was little public awareness or medical focus on the disability.
As a cardiologist, I witnessed daily the successes of medical science in the attack on heart disease. With Mark's diagnosis, I became consumed by a passion to bring the same power toward understanding autism's cause and finding its cure. I joined four other fathers of autistic sons – we became known in the media as the "Five Dads" – in co-founding the MIND Institute at UC Davis to study autism and other neurological disorders.
Despite significant advances by scientists at the MIND Institute and elsewhere, a cure for autism eludes us still. It remains the fastest-growing developmental disability in California and the nation, diagnosed in one of every 150 children. If the trend continues, it's estimated that the state's regional centers may face demands for services from as many as 70,000 people of all ages with autism by 2012.
Mark is one of the more than 4,000 teenagers in California with autism who will reach adulthood in the next five years. My son is a handsome, funny, affectionate 16-year-old who relates often to his environment with a fresh sense of wonder that both delights and inspires me. His autism won't be cured. He has difficulty with language and relationships, and his behavior by conventional standards is often quite different.
I'm not alone in my worry about my son's future. A survey by Easter Seals Disability Services and the Autism Society of America found that parents of autistic children under age 18 were nearly twice as likely to be "extremely" or "very" concerned about the future welfare of their kids as parents of non-disabled children.
With the same drive and passion that inspired parents to seek the causes and treatments for autism, a group of Sacramentans has been working for more than two years to create a community where our children with autism, as well as other individuals with other disabilities and special needs, can thrive and optimize their potential across the lifespan.
A close friend of mine likes to say that the very least everyone deserves out of this life is a job, a home and a friend. These values shape our humanity and define our social conscience. Individuals with special needs and learning differences often provide inspiration that can be gained only by living, working and playing together in an integrated community.
This planned community is not a utopia, but it will begin to address the challenges and opportunities that Mark, and countless others, face. It's not a pipe dream. Our under-the-radar work has aroused excitement across California and garnered the support of numerous organizations and officials. Nothing like this community exists anywhere.
We're working directly with a developer to turn our vision into a reality. The mixed-use community will be situated on 577 acres in the Sacramento region.
Because we're starting from scratch, we can create a true community that sustains the environment and supports all its members. People of all backgrounds, ages and abilities will live in a mix of some 3,000 "green" single-family homes, condos and apartments. A full 20 percent of the housing will be available to people with special needs, autism and other disabilities. A portion will also be set aside for seniors. The walkable community features shopping, jobs, parks and other recreation opportunities. A light-rail station and an elementary school are slated to be built, too.
About 90 percent of autistic adults are unemployed. In part, that's because of lack of opportunity and training. The employment opportunities we're working to establish for these most vulnerable citizens include jobs on area farms and community gardens that will deliver locally grown fresh produce to the community.
Living in close connection with the diverse group of people who will be drawn to this community will lend immeasurable richness to residents' lives, allowing them to tap deeply into their own humanity. It's the life many of us say we want, and it's the life I envision for Mark now and after I'm no longer able to care for him.
With this community, Sacramento could lead the way in creating smart and sustainable development that can be replicated across the state and throughout the nation. It will keep Sacramento where the MIND Institute placed it in the fight against autism: at the cutting edge.
This community could be a real jewel for Sacramento.
Our sons and daughters deserve no less.
Dr. Lou Vismara is the father of an autistic son, board member of the UCDavis MIND Institute and policy consultant to Senate President ProTem Darrell Steinberg.