Innovative Therapies for Autistic and Deaf Youths
Local therapies tackle new demands of adulthood through life skills and mental health support
By Sheila Cain
September 30, 2015
For Carrie, a Kenmore resident with severe autism, it’s all about the car ride. The 18-year-old loves the journey, says her mom, Lynn Vigo, but once they arrive at their destination, particularly if it is new, it can be quite an ordeal for the 5-foot-tall Vigo to get Carrie—who has a good 8 inches on her mom—out of the car, much less into an unfamiliar building.
So the fact that Carrie now arrives at the Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center without prodding—and without the use of her wheelchair stroller—is cause for celebration.
“When we’d reach the door, she’d put her arms and legs out to block the way in,” says Vigo about the early days of taking Carrie to the Bothell center, where she has attended a variety of skill-building and socialization classes for young adults with autism for the past year. “Now, she’s getting out of the car and walking in. That’s a huge step for her. It tells us she finds it familiar and she’s comfortable.”
Carrie spent this past summer taking four hour-long classes at the center each week: cooking, music, art and creative movement.
“Carrie has very restricted interests,” says Vigo, which is typical of those with autism. She explains that the Burnett Center has been “a rare hit” among the many misses the family has had in introducing new things to Carrie. “The Burnett Center holds a lot of promise in terms of the variety of things offered.”
Young adults like Carrie—on the cusp of adulthood but still in need of transitional services as they age out of the public school system—are often overlooked in a society where independence is assumed to be a natural, and much-anticipated, next step in life. Without the structure and socialization that comes with daily classes and programs, those with special needs instead often find themselves adrift, feeling isolated and depressed.
Luckily, there are local programs that bridge the chasms created when the educational system’s offerings end and adulthood begins.
BRIDGING THE GAP
The Burnett Adult Life Center, opened in 2014 with leadership from Seattle Children’s Autism Center, offers year-round classes, activities and events for young adults with autism, including art, cooking, music, life skills, fitness, Zumba and yoga.
Piecing together a full, rich, meaningful life for young people with autism and other developmental disabilities as they navigate toward adulthood can be a big challenge for most families, says Tammy Mitchel, program manager at the Burnett Center. “After leaving a nest that families have spent their entire lives creating, adults shift from having structure, routine, community and purpose into isolation,” Mitchel says.
Without such an outlet, many of these young adults end up staying at home with their parents and can develop mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, says Gary Stobbe, M.D., program director of Adult Autism Transitional Services at Seattle Children’s.
“Our society is not prepared to help these young people learn and grow to their fullest potential,” says Stobbe. “When our community has developed a higher comfort level with autistic individuals, then maybe we will be more inclined to hire a person with autism.”
The 12-week classes (each typically between $300 and $400) are taught by staff members who are experts in working with individuals with behavioral differences, and sometimes by experts in the community. James Schmidt, the founder of Seattle-based restaurant chain Taco del Mar, teaches one of the cooking classes.
“We start to see those in the community develop a higher comfort level with individuals with autism,” says Stobbe. “Perhaps they’ll be more apt to hire someone with these differences.”
One of the center’s most popular classes for high-functioning young adults is the Life Skills–Advanced Communication class, which touches on job interview skills, with a goal of leading participants to jobs, along with making friends and improving independence.
“The sad statistics show how hard it is for severely affected as well as high-functioning autistic people to become employed,” says Stobbe.
It’s not only those with autism who find themselves struggling to adjust to the demands of emerging adulthood. Deaf teens and young adults involved in Sound Mental Health’s (SMH) Deaf Services program in Seattle meet monthly during the summer for “Teen Talk” to keep the social connections they’ve made during the school year.
Most of the group’s participants, who range in age from 13 to 21, are integrated into Seattle-area public high schools or attend the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver, Washington. Once summer rolls around, they scatter and are often isolated from other deaf people. With Teen Talk, they are able to reconvene with other non-hearing kids to hash out frustrations, share their feelings and socialize.
The need for therapy among deaf youths—in both individual and group settings—is acute, says Anne Baldwin, program director for SMH’s Deaf Services. There can sometimes be secondary mental issues associated with deafness, especially if the absence of hearing was caused by trauma during birth or a high fever during childhood. But even without those contributing factors, says Baldwin, deaf children rarely get exposure to fluent sign language until they are in school, which can cause delays in development and communication problems within the family. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Many of these parents have never met another deaf person and have had no exposure to American Sign Language, so their communication with their children is limited.
“A tiny fraction of kids we see are able to have meaningful conversations or just chat,” says Tiffany Cassner, a mental health clinician with Sound Mental Health and the leader of Teen Talk.
“Their emotional development is delayed, and often they are dealing with depression and anxiety.”
“Most [deaf] kids have difficulty with emotion regulation,” adds Baldwin. “Parents often don’t have enough language to teach them ‘feeling’ words.”
“When they are out of school for the summer, these children have very few opportunities to have rich, fluid dialogue,” says Baldwin. Teen Talk allows these kids to communicate freely with a host of other deaf youths who speak their language, says Cassner, herself born deaf to hearing parents.
Cassner recounts one of her patients and Teen Talk participant who moved to the U.S. with his parents from another country at the age of 6. Now in high school, the youth has learned American Sign Language since moving here, but his parents still speak their native tongue.
Communication is often further hindered by cultural issues; in this case, the parents don’t feel comfortable sharing personal issues or talking about trauma.
“The kids want to connect, but they can’t.”
At Teen Talk, they are able to forge close connections with their peers, discuss coping skills and share ways they manage stress.
Both the Burnett Adult Life Center and Teen Talk are serving niche populations that have typically been underserved. And the young adults there are thriving. The Burnett Center’s Stobbe recalls one student who experienced a significant victory in the center’s cooking class.
“It was the first time he’s taken a bite of food outside his family’s home in years,” says Stobbe. “It’s such a small feat, but a huge deal for him and his family.”