The University of Toledo Libraries in partnership with Student Disability Services and the UT Disability Studies Program is shining the spotlight on adult autism through a monthlong program of free, public events beginning Thursday, March 16, ahead of Autism Awareness Month in April.
UT teamed up with Bittersweet Farms and the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio to focus on challenges adults diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder face as they transition out of high school and into the community, including housing, employment, health care, transportation, financial management, and social and leisure supports.
“Life on the Autism Spectrum: Home and Community” features a four-part lecture series, an art show of works created by adults with autism, and a fundraiser.
“University Libraries is excited to continue our work with organizations assisting those on the autism spectrum in northwest Ohio,” said Barbara Floyd, interim director of University Libraries and director of the Canaday Center for Special Collections. “The Canaday Center has worked with both Bittersweet Farms and the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio for more than a decade to collect, preserve and make available the records that document the history of these two groups. The records of these two organizations are part of a larger effort by the Canaday Center to document the lives of people with disabilities in our community.”
More than 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
“The autism spectrum is large,” Jessica Morales, UT assistant professor and collection management librarian, said. “We want to raise understanding, empathy and patience.”
According to local experts, research on autism and the development of services and support have largely focused on children, and people with autism have the lowest employment rate of all disability groups.
“As the prevalence of autism has increased and the population has aged, communities and governments are beginning to look at the needs of older adults on the autism spectrum,” said Linell Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio. “Housing will be an issue for individuals as they age. Some individuals can live on their own, but many will need some level of support.”
“My stepson, Ben, is 33 years old, but his functional intelligence is around the age of 7 or 8,” said Thomas Atwood, UT associate professor and coordinator of information literacy and library instruction. “He is very sweet, but doesn’t have the critical thinking skills to make rational decisions to keep himself safe. This is a very vulnerable population who often cannot speak for themselves and feel trapped on the inside.”
Ben DeVorss, who is one of the speakers in the lecture series, lives at Bittersweet Farms located on 80 acres of fields, pastures, gardens and woods in Whitehouse, Ohio. It’s renowned for redefining what is possible by creating and providing services for adults with autism that allow them to find meaning and dignity in the activities they do. Bittersweet’s agriculture, art and culinary programs produce products that are sold in the community.
“We provide self-paced, distraction-free activities, such as planting, harvesting, art education, animal care, grounds keeping, vocation and therapy, that participants perceive as meaningful work and feel a reinforced sense of dignity and worth,” said Vicki Obee, executive director of Bittersweet Farms. “We are thrilled that UT’s Carlson Library is sharing Bittersweet’s story and the story of adults with autism in northwest Ohio. We hope that our community — through the artwork, artifacts and lecture — will see the amazing spirit and beauty of those we serve at Bittersweet.”
“We have roughly 30 students at UT with autism who are registered with Student Disability Services, and there are likely more on campus,” Enjie Hall, director of campus accessibility and student disability services, said. “The difficulty is that many students choose not to register or do not know to affiliate with Student Disability Services, so it is hard to get an accurate count of students with autism at UT. We are committed to removing barriers and strive for full inclusion; therefore, universal design will help all students whether they are registered with Student Disability Services or not.”
Events in the monthlong adult autism programming will include:
Thursday, March 16
• Bittersweet Farms lecture by executive director Vicki Obee, board member Jane Atwood and resident Ben DeVorss titled “Neurodiversity and Community Synergies: The Efficacy of Bittersweet Farms and Preserving a Spectrum of Choices for Adults With Autism,” from 7 to 9 p.m. on the fifth floor of Carlson Library.
• Bittersweet Farms fundraiser featuring artwork and crafts created by Bittersweet residents, from 5 to 9 p.m. on the first floor concourse of Carlson Library.
Wednesday, March 22
• Lecture by Linell Weinburg, executive director of the Northwest Ohio Autism Society, and Kristy Rothe, chair of the Family Advisory Council at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital, titled “Creating a Compassionate Community: A Dialogue for Autism,” from noon to 1 p.m. in Carlson Library Room 1005.
Thursday, March 30
Lecture by Enjie Hall, UT director of campus accessibility and student disability services, and Dr. Jim Ferris, UT professor and Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies, titled “Autism, Culture and Higher Education,” 11 a.m. in Carlson Library Room 1005.
Thursday, April 6
• Two visiting scholars, who are professors with autism, will give a lecture titled “Autistic People Speak Back: A Conversation With Professors Ibby Grace and Melanie Yergeau.” Dr. Melanie Yergeau, assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Elizabeth Grace, assistant professor of education at National Louis University, will speak from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Carlson Library Room 1005.
An exhibit of Bittersweet artwork, artifacts, photos and murals will be on display from Sunday, March 12, through Thursday, April 6, on the fifth floor of Carlson Library. Library materials relevant to the series of lecture topics also will be on display during that same period.
“The library is the perfect place to start an important dialogue about the wide range and abilities of persons from the entire spectrum of autism disorders and take an in-depth look at resources and services available to help them live independently, whether it be through employment, higher education or support programs,” David Remaklus, director of operations at Carlson Library, said.