As North Texas autism community becomes a reality, the program seeks its first trainees

Ingrid Basson lends a helping hand to her 17-year-old son Sam, who asked for help while constructing a Batmobile from Legos on Jan. 27 at their Dallas, Texas home.

CROSS ROADS, Texas _ 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 ages 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.

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 Crossroads, 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 Clay are no longer around.

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 has traditionally centered around prevention and interventions 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 struggles to make sense of social cues, like body language and jokes.

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.

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 non-profit arm plans to subsidize about $10,000 of the total cost with scholarships and fundraisers.

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