Autism surprised me when my son Liam got his diagnosis four years ago, and since then not a day's gone by that I don't think about what his future holds. He's still full of potential, and I'm full of hope for his future, but I also like to plan ahead. Certainly, I'm happy to have him live with us an adult, though I'm hopeful he might be able to live on his own and have some independence. With all that said, I've also worried many a night about him going into residential care, and I've dreamed about building a place for him that would be nurturing, productive, safe, and help him have the care he needs and the best life possible. A few years ago, I met a mom who's dedicated her life to building just such a place and planning for the time when "the school bus stops coming."
Erin O'Loughlin, mom to Marcus, a 10-year-old with autism, founded 3 Irish Jewels Farm, a nonprofit organization with a vision to create "an environmentally sustainable agricultural community where adults on the autism spectrum can live dignified and meaningful lives with support in a healthy, safe and enriching environment and achieve independence through meaningful work, recreation, and community involvement." O'Loughlin's got a marketing background, and she's written a children's book. Her long-term goal as stated in the 3IJ mission statement is to "create a pilot program in North Carolina...and then open more around the state, and then around the country. There is a need for hundreds more [places like this farm community] around the country."
I interviewed her two years ago and then recently had the chance to catch up with her about her dream, and to see if she has any tips for other parents or autism advocates who might want to start a similar program.
Why is a place like 3IJF needed, and why did you feel compelled to start it?
Overall, it boils down to the word "choice." Persons with disabilities need to have choice in where and how they live and they are not currently being given that option. Furthermore, that choice should extend to families and guardians of the children, men, and women with disabilities. Being told where and how to live by the government is not in the best interests of any population—with disabilities or not—and is truly discriminatory. While living within the general community is a great option for some, it really is not the best option for others who could be better served within intentional communities of choice that offer a range of services, work opportunities, therapies, leisure activities, and an "internal community." This community within the greater community allows them to be a part of something larger and safer and not always on the outside just looking in.
Our philosophy, with many of us having decades of experience raising our own children with autism and cognitive disabilities, is that interdependency is best. Our most vulnerable citizens need people around for safety and comfort. But they also need a life that allows them to work with their strengths, and to be themselves. "Integration" is a worthy goal, but for individuals with autism, integration needs to be managed with patient and loving care if it is to be beneficial rather than harmful. Farm-based programs, which permit integration within the community, but also permit careful management of that integration, provide an environment that can be ideal. And so 3IJF is conceived not as an island or an institution that isolates the disabled from the community, but as a bridge to the community—a community of choice within the larger community.
Why a farm? What are some of the benefits to this model?
Along with its safer, quieter environment, and many opportunities for exercise, a farm gives individuals with autism a chance to do meaningful, purposeful work, which creates a sense of accomplishment. Farm work can easily be tailored to an individual's interests and abilities. On a farm, the individual can practice the rural arts. They can care for, and own, animals. They can grow their own food, clean it, help cook it, and share it with others, thus providing a place where the expectations are...not so much on the individual, which allows them to be in control. Farm work also gives people a variety of tasks, which helps prevent boredom and promote cognitive function. It engenders a sense of self-sufficiency and independence. And one of the farmstead's greatest benefits is its sense of community, which can create a more integrated, as opposed to a more fragmented, life. Farm life slows you down, making you attend to the living animal you are handling or feeding. Animals eat at their own pace, plants grow in their own time, thereby requiring you to wait and pay attention. However, it is also seasonal and predictable, something extremely important for individuals who need structure and routine. Finally, a farmstead—which is composed of people working and living together—can create a place of acceptance in an unaccepting world.
What next steps are you planning?
Currently we're offering track-out and summer programs for children with autism in kindergarten through 5th grade. We are also offering monthly social clubs at various locations for teens and adults with autism, [called] Take Flight Clubs. In the next three years, I hope to provide these invaluable services on our own land in Wake County. In the next five years, I hope to start providing our day services for adults with autism on our own land. And in the next 10 years, I hope to have our residential services for adults with autism up and running.
What advice would you offer other parents who are hoping to start a similar long-term home/residence for adults with autism?
This is definitely not for the faint of heart. Since incorporating 3IJF in 2012, I have run into many more dead ends than welcome signs and have had to make many U-turns along the way. I have heard the word "no" many, many times, and as in any business, there are people out there with ulterior motives, and you have to be careful. The hardest part for me personally is that parents of older children with autism want this to happen today or tomorrow—much quicker than is humanly possible. The need for this facility in our community is so huge, yet it takes years to make it happen. It's very tempting sometimes to disappear into my thoughts and wonder if this is all worth it. But we have come this far, there is definitely no going back now—I'm determined as ever.
So, my best advice to those wanting to start something similar would be to make sure you truly have the determination, courage, and sense of humor to see it through.