By Kristina Marie Smelley
Luke glanced up from his textbook to gaze upon the serene view and wooded grounds that provide a tranquil setting for the residents of Walkabout House in Hillsboro. Although Luke, a 20-year-old college student with autism, was ready to move out of his parent’s home, he was not yet prepared to live on his own.
Walkabout House, a 5,000-square-foot transition home for young adults on the autism spectrum, offers a family-like home and apprenticeship program to help young adults like Luke learn to become fully independent.
“I feel respected and like an adult here,” he says. “I am trusted to do things to help me learn to live independently. I like that this is a safe place and I don’t have to worry I will fail because I have help and support from Brad and Debbie.”
Founders of Walkabout House, Brad Fowler and Debbie Hogan, live with the residents and teach them social communication, money management, pre-vocational opportunities and other life skills needed to eventually live independently and secure employment. There is no time limit on how long a resident can stay. Instead, parents and their young adult fill out a checklist of life skills and goals needed for independence, and then meet with Walkabout staff to develop an Individual Support Plan (ISP) to help reach goals.
Each resident has a private bedroom and shares common living areas, including an entertainment room, large shop and garden. Meals are provided five nights a week. Residents are required to learn how to prepare food and make their own breakfast and lunches. Ryan, a resident at Walkabout House, praises Hogan for the delicious food.
“I love to cook and guide them through planning, shopping and preparing meals,” Hogan says. She has a grown son with Asperger’s syndrome. “We want to them to have real life experiences to learn and grow.”
Hogan also helps residents manage food allergies and can accommodate a gluten- and dairy-free diet if needed.
Each resident is interviewed during the application process and must abide by a set of house rules, including doing their personal best to learn, grow and strive for independence. Residents also agree to respect other housemates and their belongings. Residents have jobs around the house such as yard work, working in the shop, gardening, cooking or light housework. Residents can be paid an allowance by their families for their involvement in this pre-vocational program that Walkabout House offers.
“Our residents experience what it’s like to have a real job, but in a safe setting,” Hogan says. “It gives them an opportunity to learn how to be successful employees while learning new skills.”Fowler, who has a background as a neuroscientist and entrepreneur, brings the latest developments in behavioral science to help residents gain good communication, interpersonal and self-advocacy skills. He helps residents craft resumes and practice interview skills when they are ready to find a job.
If a resident has an entrepreneurial spirit, Fowler is eager to help them start their own business to reach their professional goals. Partnerships with local colleges and business are in development. Fowler says this provides residents with more opportunities to grow and use their skills.
“Programs like the Portland Community College’s Yes to College program and the up-and-coming Portland nonPareil program, designed for autistic adults interested in computer game design, are very exciting,” Fowler says. “We want to work in collaboration with colleges and businesses that can create opportunities for these wonderful and talented young adults.”
Barbara Avila, owner of Synergy Autism Center, is thrilled to be involved in making Walkabout House the best it can be for residents. Synergy Autism Center, Avila’s consulting business started in 2011, trains those living or working with individuals on the spectrum to offer opportunities for increasing independent decision-making and social engagement.
These people may be parents, respite providers, teachers or residential home mentors. Avila has worked with Fowler for two years, helping him create a mentorship model for residents to target social-cognitive flexibility and independence.
“The Walkabout approach of guiding young adults on the autism spectrum to full independence is a much needed resource, not only in our community, but in communities internationally,” Avila says. “Sadly, there are too many autistic young adults who have so much talent and ability but are still living at home, unable to find gainful employment and/or successful relationships.”
Finding a good transition solution is important, Avila says.
“Walkabout House seeks to be the ‘in between’ for these young adults who are not yet ready to be fully independent, but who are rightfully ready to move on from their parents’ guidance,” she says. “Walkabout mentors guide and support the fundamentals of decision-making so that the adult can make decisions independently in regards to employment and relationships in the future.”
Walkabout House accepts Medicaid and private pay clients. Monthly costs include room, board and transportation, as well as all support services. Medications are administered and recorded as well.
“Our passion at Walkabout House is to help residents gain their independence,” Fowler says. “We know we’ve been successful when our residents come to a place where they have gained enough skills to keep a job and live confidently on their own.”
Kristina Marie Smelley is a Portland freelance writer and co-leader of a local support group called REST for moms with children who experience special needs. She is married with two children, one with autism. She is also a local singer-songwriter currently working on a collection of life-skills songs for children with special needs.