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Dozens of parents commit $1 million to help build autism community in Denton

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Sabriya Rice, The Dallas Morning News

A Dallas couple planning to build a $12 million community for young adults with autism say they have confirmed enough money from individual investors to begin the first wave of the project by the end of the year

Clay Heighten and Debra Caudy, both retired doctors, have a 19-year old son, Jon, who is on the severe end of the autism spectrum.

Retired doctors Clay Heighten (right) and his wife Debra Caudy (left) are pictured in their University Park, Texas home, Friday, December 30, 2016. The couple has invested $700,000 to purchase nearly 29 acres of land in Crossroads, Texas to create a housing community for people with autism. Their autistic 19-year-old son Jon (center) can't live on his own without assistance, so the couple is working on a $12 million project to create a housing community for people on the autism spectrum to learn and live independently with jobs like dog walkers and bakers. They set up a 501c3 to raise money to build the 14 home community on the acreage south of US Highway 380. They are pictured in their University Park home, Friday, December 30, 2016. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)Staff Photographer
Retired doctors Clay Heighten (right) and his wife Debra Caudy (left) are pictured in their University Park, Texas home, Friday, December 30, 2016. The couple has invested $700,000 to purchase nearly 29 acres of land in Crossroads, Texas to create a housing community for people with autism. Their autistic 19-year-old son Jon (center) can't live on his own without assistance, so the couple is working on a $12 million project to create a housing community for people on the autism spectrum to learn and live independently with jobs like dog walkers and bakers. They set up a 501c3 to raise money to build the 14 home community on the acreage south of US Highway 380. They are pictured in their University Park home, Friday, December 30, 2016. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
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The couple gained national attention in January when they announced plans to build a community for people like Jon, on 29 acres of land in the Denton County town of Cross Roads.

They cited a national shortage of innovative models to provide long-term solutions to young adults with autism as the children transition into adulthood.

The public response to The Dallas Morning News' original post about the effort was "overwhelming" and spoke to the demand for such a community, Caudy said.

"As a parent, your No. 1 worry is what's going to happen when we're no longer here?" said John Foley, who has signed up to be one of the investors.

Foley, a human resources VP from Frisco whose 14-year-old son, Hudson, has autism, met Heighten and Caudy through a colleague in 2009 when the project was just being conceptualized. He has since volunteered to join the board.

So far, about a dozen investors, from Texas to Alaska, mainly parents of children on the autism spectrum, have signed legal documents promising $80,000 each, or just under $1 million total.

In 2015, Caudy and Heighten had personally invested $745,000 to purchase the land. Last year, they created a nonprofit called 29 Acres to raise money for the project.

The project is representative of a national trend in which families are bonding together to fill unmet needs, says Lisa Goring, chief program officer for Autism Speaks, a New York-based group that advocates for individuals with autism and their families.

A 2013 Autism Speaks survey of more than 10,000 people found that close to 80 percent of adults with autism still live at home and the majority are unemployed or underemployed.

As a result, families are getting innovative, Goring said. She noted examples of neighborhood and community networks created in Kansas, Arizona and New York City that have been recognized for their efforts around housing and employment.

At least two other projects are underway in North Texas to develop housing options for adults with intellectual and developmental delays, one in Waxahachie and another in Sachse.

When complete, the 29 Acres community could employ about 200 full- and part-time staff, including security guards, administration and one-on-one specialists who are experienced in living with and caring for people with developmental challenges.

Joel Klessens, president of a garden and pet supply company in Alaska, has also offered a financial commitment. He and his wife, Lisa, have two children with autism.

Their oldest son, 25-year old Spencer, lives in Plano and attends the Nonpareil Institute, a program developed by two fathers to train high-functioning young adults with autism to work on computer and software development.

That program wasn't the best fit for their youngest son, Chandler, 18, whose autism is more severe. There were few options for him in Alaska.

So the family made the tough decision to live in separate states. Lisa moved to Maine with Chandler, so he could attend a special education placement and treatment program.

The Klessens are interested in 29 Acres because the location would put both of their sons in the same state and provide what they hope will be a more long-term solution.

"As a parent, you come to the realization that nobody is going to build something for you and give you what you need for your kid," he said.

"I'm going to have to pay for it if I want to get it done. Bringing in investors is a financially feasible approach."

But, it should not just be families stepping up to fill the void, Goring noted.

"This is a national issue, and we need to create more opportunities. There aren't enough options, and it can be very expensive. So those that don't have the means have even fewer." Many of the facilities are private pay and do not accept insurance.

At least six other families are on track to commit an additional $480,000 total to 29 Acres by the end of the summer, Heighten says. The nonprofit is now moving forward with conducting the engineering and architectural work needed to allow general contractors to bid and confirm the full estimates of building costs.

Some companies have offered services at a discount or for free, like construction, inspections and real estate development. Often, leaders from those companies have a child on the spectrum.

"We hope this and our mission will allow us to get this constructed at the low end of estimates," Heighten said. Construction on 29 Acres could begin by December.

FEATURED PHOTO: Clay Heighten helps his autistic son Jon Heighten blow out the candles on his 19th birthday cake at their University Park, Texas home, Friday, December 30, 2016. Clay and his wife Debra Caudy have invested $700,000 to purchase nearly 29 acres of land in Crossroads, Texas to create a housing community for people with autism. Their autistic 19-year-old son Jon can't live on his own without assistance, so the couple is working on a $12 million project to create a housing community for people on the autism spectrum to learn and live independently with jobs like dog walkers and bakers. They set up a 501c3 to raise money to build the 14 home community on the acreage south of US Highway 380.(Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)