Many know Susan Houghton from her days as the spokeswoman for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and later for Safeway. These days, however, she's even more widely known and appreciated as the founder with other parents of Sunflower Hill, a Pleasanton-based nonprofit organization created for families of older children with developmental delays.
Houghton has found her niche as a role model for adults with autism and those caring for them.
Employed in the field of public affairs and government relations for more than 30 years and now as a mother of a 22-year-old with moderate autism, she is skillfully leading the effort to develop sustainable lifelong residency options with an enhanced quality of life so that those with developmental delays who are older can continue in beneficial programs they enjoyed when younger.
Houghton said she remembers the day the yellow school bus stopped coming for her son Robby, one of 70,000 individuals in California diagnosed with autism. It's an alarming statistic, especially since there were only 4,000 diagnosed in 1992, the year Robby was born.
Graduation ceremonies are typically a reason to celebrate. But for the Houghton family, it was just the opposite. The yellow school bus had been Robby's lifeline since he was 4, taking him to a world of caring teachers, academics and activities. But he turned 22, and for special education students that's when public school officially ends. In his last year, Robby thrived in a special 'transition' class that focused on life skills and job training. But now there is no place for him to go.
Houghton started her search a year ago. Feeling optimistic about all Robby had learned, she inquired about a special program that 'catered' to individuals with autism. Acceptance would mean a chance to live in a dorm, follow a routine, and gain job skills. But these programs are now more selective, catering to higher-functioning (Asperger syndrome) individuals and leaving behind those with mild to moderate delays, like Robby. Several available Bay Area programs have two-year waiting lists and, Houghton learned, involve little more than just sitting around, passing the time.
So now, after years in public school with structured days and opportunities, Robby, like many others, is being left behind.
"I never envisioned this outcome," Houghton said. "Robby had wonderful teachers and loved school. He was the honorary drum major for his high school band. He volunteered in the cafeteria, student store and at a local gym. He recently gave a speech before a large audience honoring his teachers, and he excelled at Special Olympics."
Yet sadly, Houghton's experience appears to be the norm. Post-high school programs for young adults with special needs are not readily available, even though approximately 93% of Californians with autism are under the age of 31. That's more than 65,000 individuals.
Houghton said that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates a free and appropriate education for special needs individuals through age 22. They must also be trained for employment and independent living. But what's the point if there aren't opportunities to use those skills? Why can't there be a "life after high school" for all who want it, Houghton asked.
As Robby becomes an adult, his future and really the future of all individuals with autism and developmental delays becomes clear and worrisome. Where will they live? What will they do? What will be their passion and purpose in life? Unfortunately, the reality is that one in 50 individuals is now born with autism. More than 500,000 will become adults in the next decade. Is society prepared?
This is why Houghton helped create Sunflower Hill. The organization seeks to change the paradigm of both institutional and home living options by creating an intentional community that supports a sustainable, productive, warm and happy quality of life.
The name was specifically chosen for its meaning.
According to Houghton, sunflowers originated in the Americas in 1000 B.C., where for centuries they were cultivated as a valuable food source. They are considered gifts of radiant warmth and the happiest of flowers. Their meanings include loyalty and longevity, nourishment and vibrancy. This is the vision Houghton has for a Sunflower Hill community, a place where all individuals of all ages can thrive.
For more information on Sunflower Hill, sign on to the organization's website at www.sunflowerhill.org or call 321-5757.
* Sunflower Hill is the third nonprofit Houghton has founded to help children and parents deal with special needs issues. The others: Exceptional Needs Network (now in its 13th year) and Kern Autism Network in Bakersfield.
* East Bay Gives, a 24-hour online giving event, recognized Sunflower Hill in 10th place out of 140 nonprofits in the East Bay.
* Currently director of development and communications at UC Berkeley, Houghton also serves on the President's Advisory Board at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism. She is also an adviser to the newly formed Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance, a consortium dedicated to promoting awareness and collaboration among the area's 501(c)3 organizations.
* Houghton's other past work experience includes executive director of the Ohlone College Foundation, manager of HR communications for Chevron, and the spokesperson/public affairs coordinator for PG&E's Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
* She is finalizing her master's degree in administration/philanthropy through Michigan State University.
*Houghton has two other sons: Trevor, a sophomore at Cal Poly, and Jonathan, a former Marine who is also attending Las Positas College. She resides in Livermore with husband Larry and their golden retriever Maddie.