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Salt Lake City: Autism services end at age 22; 'services cliff'

Apr 10, 2023, KSL Salt Lake: Autistic adults face a 'services cliff' in Utah

…The autism 'services cliff'

A common misunderstanding about autism, Leonard said, is that it's a childhood disorder. "For some reason, people forget that we live with this for the rest of our lives."

Although autism continues into adulthood, many of the supports available to the autistic population do not. In fact, the drop-off of resources that occurs when autistic individuals turn 22 is referred to in the professional world as the "services cliff."

Jane Carlson, the director of The Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at UVU, says Utah is not immune to this service cliff, despite having a higher autism rate than most of the U.S.

"We have a lot of work to do here. We don't have a very robust array of services for adults," Carlson said.

Much of this has to do with lack of funding, education and training, according to Joe Nawalaneic, a behavior analyst at the Adult Autism Center of Lifelong Learning. The Adult Autism Center is one of the only places in Utah that serves people who are nonspeaking with low adaptive skills, and its long waitlist speaks to the lack of services.

"For that population, once they reach adulthood and age out of the school system, they're hospitalized or they're at home with their parents, who are then likely forced to quit their job to stay home and take care of them," Nawalaneic said.

Even autistic adults who are more independent often have trouble accessing services to help them navigate the challenges of adulthood. Many autistic adults struggle to find housing, according to Carlson, and around 85% are either unemployed or underemployed.

Resources for autistic adults in Utah

Despite the major gap in resources, autistic adults in Utah do have some options. At the Adult Autism Center of Lifetime Learning, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have access to ABA therapy and day programs to help them develop life skills and social connection.

In addition to coping strategies, The Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism's Personal Empowerment Program provides a series of classes and social activities that help attendees set and accomplish academic, career-related, social and emotional goals. The center also has an Educational Coaching Program, through which peer mentors help autistic students achieve academic success….

"I think a lot of the world around us is made by and for neurotypical people," Buerger said. "And I think what neurotypical people can do better is they can generally feel confident that their perception of the social norms around them matches everyone else's. But for autistic people, it doesn't work that way."…


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