This is the final installment of a two-part series on autism services in Evanston. The first article appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of the RoundTable.

One out of every 88 American children is born with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Fortunately Evanston has a wealth of resources to help families and individuals who are struggling with autism. Last issue, the RoundTable highlighted the work being done at Theraplay, Have Dreams and the Center for Independent Futures. There are more agencies, however, that offer comprehensive services and care.

Rimland Services, formerly called Rimland School for Autistic Children, has been in existence since 1970. This state-funded agency, which is licensed by the Department of Human Services, supports those 18 and older who have been diagnosed with autism. Rimland was originally founded by a small group of parents whose children with autism were excluded from the public schools. Currently Rimland Services supports 70 adults (with a wait-list of 30), many of whom are on the severe side of the autism spectrum. Health and wellness, sensory integration, art therapy, life skills, community access, emergency respite temporary care and residential group homes are a sampling of the organization’s offerings.

Rimland was the first non-profit in the state to establish community-living options for individuals with an ASD and currently has 16 group residences throughout the Chicago metro area.

“Rimland opened its first group home in Highland Park,” said Executive Director Carolyn Zak. “And now we have them in Des Plaines, Maywood, Mt. Prospect and one here in Evanston.”

The Evanston residence, located on Foster Street, was obtained through the HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which provides grants to purchase foreclosed or abandoned properties for redevelopment. More information about Rimland Services is available at 847-328-4090 or visit www.rimland.org.

Living with Asperger’s

The RoundTable spoke with “Jordan,” an Evanston resident who has Asperger’s syndrome and can speak to the benefit of support services. To protect the individual’s privacy, “Jordan” is not the person’s real name.

Early on, Jordan’s parents suspected that something was amiss. Years passed, however, before doctors confirmed that their child had a mild form of autism. During the middle-school years, when Jordan was often bullied, Jordan’s parents finally told their pre-teen about the doctors’ diagnosis and why it was difficult to fit into the neuro-typical world at large.

“Today I’m not in denial,” said Jordan. “I’m not embarrassed to have Asperger’s. It’s a neurological difference. I’m just different. For instance, at age 12, I didn’t know how to make friends, and I wasn’t good at picking up on things that other people just seemed to know.”

Jordan began receiving special support services after being told about autism. Jordan’s parents accessed Northwestern University’s Speech and Communication Department so that Jordan could learn about “many of the ways that other people’s action and words don’t match [polite language idioms].” A support group on the North Shore also helped with social skills. After attending a private high school, Jordan said the next transition was to the PACE Program at National Louis University.

PACE is a two-year, post-secondary academic and life-skills program for high school graduates with varying disabilities. Students live in a designated dorm residence and have roommates as well as coaches who prepare them for a future that includes employment. Jordan did well and is one of the 80 percent of PACE graduates who landed a job after finishing the program.

“Without a job coach at my job,” Jordan said, “I’d never have been able to stay hired. It’s hard to do everything my boss wants me to do. I can’t do just one thing at a time and do it well. I’m expected to do lots of things, be nice to customers, talk to other employees and do what they say, too.” Jordan explained that people with Asperger’s do best if they are directly taught, one thing at a time, one step at a time.

“I put my whole heart into the job I’m doing. I’ve had it for seven years, but in the beginning it would have been impossible to stay there without a coach helping me. It sometimes doesn’t seem fair that I have to fit into the world of neuro-typical people. I wish there was mandatory training for the workforce, for everybody – for other people to understand that my brain and others with Asperger’s just work differently. I’m good at lots of things, but I wasn’t born to shift gears quickly. I wasn’t born to figure out what people mean unless they say it very directly.”

Jordan has been employed at the same Evanston company for seven years and is an accomplished volunteer at a non-profit, a speaker and advocate for ASD and a personal mentor to teenagers with high-level Asperger’s. “I had good support, and I want to help anyone who needs it,” Jordan said.

A Resource for Families

Autism spectrum disorders also pose challenges to the individual’s family and support network.

“Raising a child with special needs takes any crack or vulnerability that a marriage already has and magnifies it,” said Alexandra Solomon, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University’s Family Institute. Her specialty is couples’ therapy, and being a parent of a special needs child has made her especially sensitive to the care and support parents need. Dr. Solomon has authored many articles, a recent one on parenting children with autism. She has also developed an adult workshop entitled “Mindful Parenting.”

Those interested in learning more about family therapy or Dr. Solomon’s work can contact the Evanston office, located at 618 Library Place or call 847-733-4300.