The first part of a $12 million project in Denton County that's aimed at creating job and housing opportunities for adults with autism officially launches this year.
Starting in mid-February, adults 18 and older who have a primary diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and who have completed high school can apply for placement in the 29 Acres Transition Academy, the founders say.
The two-year transition program will help young people with autism learn to live independently, and offer specialized job training and employment assistance.
Residents will be selected on a first-come, first-served basis as they meet the criteria. Training will begin in August for the eight who are accepted.
It's just one part of a project that was first reported by The Dallas Morning News last year.
A University Park couple, Clay Heighten and Debra Caudy, announced plans to create a long-term solution for people like their 20-year old son, Jon, who has a diagnosis of autism and lives at home.
The couple started a nonprofit and made a $750,000 personal investment in 29 acres of land in the town of Cross Roads, where they plan to build a community with duplexes, an activity center and educational programs meant to teach higher-functioning young adults to become more self-sufficient.
"Our vision is becoming a reality. It just really speaks to the need," said Caudy, who is in her 60s and worried about what will happen to Jon when she and Heighten are no longer around.
The big picture
Autism is a group of developmental disorders usually diagnosed in childhood that fall on a wide-ranging spectrum; some children have only mild symptoms. Others are severely disabled. Often individuals with the condition have difficulty communicating. Some exhibit repetitive behaviors.
News about the 29 Acres effort last year refueled a national conversation about the need to prepare for an estimated half million teenagers with autism expected to reach adulthood over the next decade.
"The big picture here is that there are not nearly enough services," said Dave Kearon, director of adult services at Autism Speaks. That department was created in 2012; the national focus had traditionally centered around early interventions and treatments to manage symptoms.
So far 20 families who are also worried about a lack of available resources for their own children have put up a total of $1.6 million combined to propel the North Texas project forward.
One such benefactor is Mitch Basson, 62, of Dallas. His 17-year-old son, Sam, struggles to make sense of social cues, like body language and jokes.
He may not understand if someone rolls their eyes, and phrases like "I'm pulling your leg," he takes literally.
"And all I wish is what any other parent wants for their kids; to reach their maximum potential, whatever that may be, and to be happy, safe and healthy. And that's what led me to 29 Acres," he said.
That sentiment was shared by Frisco couple Doug and Jodi Bartek, who are both in their 60s.
Their 21-year old son Ryan has a more extreme form of autism. Ryan has what's described as perfect pitch -- by listening to a note on a piano, he can identify which note was played and in which key. But, he likes to do that over and over and over again, and he has difficulty communicating with others.
The Barteks say they started looking when Ryan was in his teens for a place where he could eventually live.
"We found really good programs for special-needs young adults in general," Doug said. "But we really wanted some place that was specialized in autism."
After reading about 29 Acres last year in The Dallas Morning News, both couples say they reached out to the founders and committed $80,000 each to invest in making the community a reality.
Groundbreaking on the 29 Acres property in Cross Roads is anticipated in late spring.
The founders are modeling their project after similar transitional living places in Arizona and California. But parents across the country have been getting creative, pooling resources and proactively filling the unmet need for housing, job training and social activities, experts said.
Most adults on the spectrum live with their parents. And as those parents grow into their 70s, they become less able to care for their adult children. "That's when the real crisis hits," Kearon noted.
The first students accepted to the 29 Acres transitional program will live in two houses in nearby Paloma Creek that were purchased by an unnamed North Texas family that has a daughter with autism. They are leasing the homes to 29 Acres for a significantly reduced price.
"That helps us keep expenses low. But just as important gives us stability," Caudy said.
While the efforts are being lauded in the autism community as among the first-of-its kind in Texas, concern persists nationwide about how many people will ultimately be able to afford these types of programs.
"The options are great for the families that can afford it, but we're very concerned about the 98 percent of our families that can't," said Kearon.
Debra Caudy estimates the cost per year for someone to attend the 29 Acres transitional school will be close to $60,000, about the cost of a private college. The 29 Acres nonprofit arm plans to subsidize about $10,000 of the total cost with scholarships and fundraisers.
The group is also trying to lower the costs by seeking public funding for people with disabilities through Texas Workforce Commission, Caudy said.
Often the only alternatives are traditional group home services which are covered by health insurance, like the federal Medicaid program. But families said those options tend to be less individualized, offer fewer choices to residents about what they can do and eat, and have more people in one home.
FEATURED PHOTO: Ingrid Basson works with her 17-year-old son, Sam, who asked for help while constructing a Batmobile from Legos. The Bassons moved to Dallas from the Chicago area after reading about 29 Acres, a program for adults with autism that is taking shape in Cross Roads. Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News