It was an alarming headline –- even for parents, educators and paraprofessionals who are experiencing the day-to-day reality.
On March 24, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced autism rates dramatically increased, continuing a decades long trend. If you missed it, here’s a quick recap: In 2020, one in 36 8-year-olds nationwide had autism –- up from one in 44 in 2018 and one in 150 in 2000.
Unfortunately, in California, this translates to one in 22 8-year-olds diagnosed -– and more than 133,000 residents who meet the autism spectrum criteria cited by California’s Department of Developmental Services (DDS).
And that’s just autism. Add in the statistics from those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and California has more than 402,698 Regional Center clients with active diagnoses and caseloads.
Even if the world of special needs has not touched you directly, you may have an extended family member or close friend caring for someone with a disability. Society’s mantra of "six degrees of separation" is probably more like three degrees when it comes to knowing someone with I/DD.
Parents often struggle to understand the "why and how" their own child became afflicted –- and one can argue whether early or improved diagnoses support some of the startling increases. However, that does not change the reality: There are individuals with I/DD living in the Tri-Valley who need programs, housing and life-long solutions. Are we doing all we can to help?
Dedicated educators and individualized education plans (IEP’s) have always formed the basis for early support via intervention strategies and special education. Programs like the city of Pleasanton’s RADD program (Recreation for Adults with Developmental Disabilities), school district WorkAbility opportunities, Special Olympics and summer camping experiences are also vital to helping I/DD individuals thrive.
But with approximately seven in 10 adults with I/DD still living with their parents, finding permanent housing solutions is just as paramount. It is also the fundamental reason Sunflower Hill was created in 2013.
Where will individuals with I/DD live after their parents are gone? How can we create affordable opportunities that provide life-long housing solutions?
Thankfully, with the passage of Senate Bill 812 in 2011, cities began analyzing I/DD needs as part of their Housing Element plans. And it was not a moment too soon, as the Regional Center of the East Bay (RCEB) later cited there were more than 3,150 individuals with I/DD living in the Tri-Valley and approximately 1,045 residential units would be needed by 2023.
At Sunflower Hill, we are extremely grateful for the public-private partnerships, city prioritization and community support that enabled us to create affordable and independent I/DD residential living at Irby Ranch in Pleasanton.
Organizations like REACH and traditional affordable housing providers have provided similar residential gains. But, simply put, we’ve fallen short in reaching the 2023 goal of 1,045 I/DD housing opportunities in the Tri-Valley.
As we celebrate Sunflower Hill’s 10-year anniversary in 2023 and enter the next decade, this vision remains paramount. We want a world where people of all abilities are welcomed, empowered, and valued –- with an opportunity to live as affordably and independently as possible.
Transitioning from the nationally designated Developmental Disabilities Awareness month of March to Autism Awareness in April gives us all an opportunity to fully absorb what that might mean. If the past is prologue, one thing is certain: I/DD rates will continue to increase, and more families will struggle to find housing and program solutions.
The time to plan for that is now. We welcome all in our greater community to join us.
Susan Houghton is the founder of Sunflower Hill, a Pleasanton-based nonprofit creating places and spaces where adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities live, work and thrive. Her son Robby is one of 31 individuals now living at Sunflower Hill at Irby Ranch.
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