New Santa Rosa program for autism aids mainstream transition

A new program in Santa Rosa for young adults with autism is helping them improve their lives and increase their independent living skills.

In February, Becoming Independent launched Passport to Independence, which prepares adults with autism and related conditions for entry into the mainstream community after they have completed public or non-public schooling.

The program is made possible by $550,000 in start-up funds provided by eight local funders.

The project follows a successful pilot project that involved four adult men and two women. In the coming months, classes will provide instruction and guidance for many more individuals.

'At the conclusion of our two-month pilot project, the six pilot students demonstrated improvements in their ability to negotiate independent living skills and community involvement,' said Juliana Baumgartner, Becoming Independent's autism specialist and instructor. 'Our ultimate goal is to get individuals out into the community, working and enjoying making choices for themselves. The program is literally a passport to independence.'

Becoming Independent is the North Bay's largest non-profit serving people with disabilities. The new funds have helped to finance building upgrades, furnishings and high tech tools to address the unique sensory and education needs of people with autism. The five-day a week, year-round program and curriculum includes the participation of behaviorists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists.

Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in Sonoma County. The number of cases increased 1,013 percent between 1990 and 2014. Currently, 24 percent of people with disabilities served by the North Bay Regional Center have an autism diagnosis.

According to the Sonoma County Office of Education, nearly 200 local students, now ages 14 and up, have autism diagnoses and will be leaving high school and turned out into the community over the next few years.

'There is a growing community need to provide services for adults with autism, and BI's Passport for Independence is designed to meet that challenge and help these men and women become successful and productive citizens,' said Luana Vaetoe, Becoming Independent CEO. 'Our program is state of the art and we're delighted to be operating in the pioneering spirit of our founders. Initial responses from participants and their families has been very positive, and already, we're getting interest from families from as far away as the East Coast who saw news of the program on our web site.'

Startup funds were provided by the Ernest L. and Ruth W. Finley Foundation, the Flat Tire Club of Santa Rosa, John Jordan Foundation, BlackRock, Dome Construction of South San Francisco, Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, Community Foundation Sonoma County/Healdsburg Area Fund and The Press Democrat Celebrate Community Partnership.

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