Autism: When children on the spectrum begin ‘aging out’ of the system

SEATTLE -- We hear a lot about the importance of early intervention when it comes to kids on the autism spectrum. But you don’t hear much about what happens to those kids once they become adults.

Marni hughes continues our focus this month as we cover the spectrum.

When a child is diagnosed with autism, it's tough as a parent not to let your mind race to the future, wondering if your kiddo will have friends, one day have a job, a family or even live on their own.

For many families raising kids on the spectrum, the thought of “aging out” of the system can be scary. But it doesn’t have to be.

When it comes to introductions…

"Hello dad."

Chris Groves has his down.

But for Chris, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, making eye contact and saying hello took a lot of time and practice.

"He’s as social as he can be and for us that’s huge," says dad Bob Groves.

Bob says Chris went through the public school system and was placed in a special needs classroom early on.

"He had good teachers. They continued working with him so he always made progress until he eventually aged out of the system."

That’s when Bob says families like his essentially fall off a cliff and lose support.

In Washington, all students are eligible to receive special education from the time they’re 3 years of age. But once they reach 21, those services stop.

"They just age out of the system and there’s almost nothing, other than adult day care."

That’s where the Alyssa Burnett Center comes in.

"We are a recreational center for adults with disabilities."

Realizing the drop off in services for their own daughter Alyssa, Charles and Barbara Burnett opened the Alyssa Burnett Center in Bothell in 2014. To this day, Alyssa is still enrolled in classes, along with more 100 other students with developmental disabilities.

And at Alyssa Burnett, no one ever ages out.

"They start here at age 18 but there is no cutoff age, which is a big part of why we’re here."

The center focuses on life and social skills.There are more than 40 classes, from art to zumba, movement and music. Students here foster friendship and find independence.

"People definitely underestimate the capabilities of this population and the potential for them to thrive in our community."

This cooking class is teaching Chris how to prepare his own meal and clean up. But it’s more than just learning your way around a kitchen.

"He doesn’t want to be dependent on us for everything. The less dependent he is the more he’s a grownup. A man. Which is kind of where he wants to be. He doesn’t want to be a big kid he wants to be a whole person."

A whole person who one day wants to have a job -- just like other 26 year olds.

Chris agreed to sit down with me to answer a few of my questions. And ask me a few of his own.

Chris says he likes his job putting books away at St. Vincent de Paul because he enjoys organizing things. And with the skills he’s learning at Alyssa Burnett, he's
gaining the confidence to do that.

Classes at the Alyssa Burnett Center range from about $200 to $400 for a 12-week session and are open to people of all disabilities. If you’d like to learn more, we’ve put a link to the center (here), along with other resources for families raising kids on the spectrum. Or just go to www.q13fox.com and search 'autism'.