CLEVELAND — In its most recent report, the CDC estimated autism is prevalent in one out of every 59 children. For those children, adulthood and future employment are met with challenges at every turn. However, Daily Behavioral Health in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood will soon launch a new program designed to teach young adults on the autism spectrum important life skills in hopes that they survive and thrive.
After Labor Day, Daily Behavioral Health will begin its new Life Skills House and Bed & Breakfast, a program designed for young adults with high functioning autism spectrum disorder between the ages of 16 to 22. Carved out of a 90-year-old former convent, the life skills house will teach the students essential living skills, including laundry, cooking, cleaning, money management and office skills – all skills that most people take for granted.
When the students show a mastery for the skills, the students will help run the autism friendly bed and breakfast next door.
The first-of-its-kind program will allow the students to learn and later implement these transitional skills into daily practice and, hopefully, allow the students to assimilate better into the community, said the center’s president, Dr. Cara Daily.
“They are actually going to have to manage the money. In the sense that when we get bills, they are going to have to be able to write out the check – I’ll still sign them – but just working on that. Then they will receive tips from whomever stays at the AirBnB. They’ll have to manage that in Quickbooks,” Dr. Daily said. “They have a hard time many times even communicating with people. In that aspect, they will be managing things… If something goes wrong like the plumbing breaks, they are going to have to be able to pick up the phone and call the number for the plumber.”
Dr. Daily started her behavioral health center nearly two decades ago after working at Cleveland Clinic. About 12 years ago and with the help of the Kamm’s Corners Development Corp, she acquired the property, including the convent and a larger office building, from nearby St. Mel’s Catholic Church. The behavioral health center employs roughly 32 people, including clinical psychologists, speech pathologists, social workers and office staff. The center offers psychological assessments, training and autism-related services.
“I like to talk about the strengths of autism. We all are born with strengths and weaknesses,” Dr. Daily said. “Those with autism have amazing strengths in their brain. They are really good at certain things, which means if your break works really well in certain areas, it’s not going to work as well in other areas.”
One of Dr. Daily’s students, 15-year-old Tommy Drews, has undergone a particularly profound evolution. Tommy, who is on the autism spectrum but remains highly functional, came to the center at the age of three. He was non-verbal.
“I always remember his first words were ‘juice please,’” Dr. Daily said. “I said, ‘let’s get him juice! Let’s get him juice!’ He’s one of those kids where communication is his [strength] now.”
Tommy is a ball of energy. He and his cheerful disposition bounces room to room as he implores anyone that will listen to check out some of his favorite television shows and YouTube channels. While Tommy is still learning and receiving treatment on some of the other, more nuanced societal and communication norms, his mother, Colleen, said he has grown into a normal teenager.
“We’ve been with [Daily Behavioral Health] from the beginning. Now he’s talking up a storm,” Colleen Drews said. “He has his likes and dislikes and what he likes to call his teenage angst.”
“I have my son. We’re very lucky.”
Tommy will be one of the first students to enter into the center’s life skills house and bed & breakfast program. The bed and breakfast, which will occupy a newly-renovated craftsman style home on the center’s property, will be managed and operated by the center’s students. Center staff will still supervise the operation. The real-world implementation of the often-overlooked life skills, hopefully, will provide the students with a better chance of success as they enter adulthood, Dr. Daily said.
Only 14 percent of adults on the autism spectrum held paid jobs in their communities, according to a 2017 report from Drexel University’s Autism Institute. However, experts have said more resources and programs designed to address these challenges can help change that percentage. Around age 14, plans to transition to adulthood need to be made, Dr. Daily said.
“They really have to be working on their life skills; their self-help skills; taking care of themselves; doing laundry; managing money,” Dr. Daily said. “It’s important just being able to cook, clean, those kinds of things.”
For his part, Tommy seems excited for his new role. On Friday, he was practicing getting freshly-baked rolls out of the oven. Perhaps the hospitality industry will make for a possible career path.
“I want to be a cook and I also want to serve people some food,” Tommy Drews said. “I want to live in a nice home like this one. I want to have a beautiful marriage partner with beautiful children.”
The autism-friendly bed and breakfast will be available for rent around Labor Day weekend. The listing will be available on AirBnB.