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Carbondale's Yellow House fills a need for adults with autism

Sep 8, 2015

Those involved with the Yellow House in Carbondale say it gives adults with autism independence. Founder Sallie Bernard began the non profit, in part, so her son would have a place to live.
Credit Marci Krivonen

A newly-renovated historic home in Carbondale is providing supported living for adults with autism. The Yellow House began operating last year when its first tenants moved in. It’s designed differently than a typical house, with features custom-made for autistic adults. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, it’s one solution to a substantial lack of such housing nationwide.

Yellow House founder Sallie Bernard motions to different features in the home’s spacious kitchen. It looks fairly typical, but there are some unique components.

"All the lights are LEDs, so they’re energy efficient. But, they’re also the quiet kind. Anything in the house, when you turn it on, it’s the lowest sound you can get on the market," she says.

One of the core features for many people with autism is sensitivity to sound and light. The non profit home isn’t heated through vents but rather, radiant heat in the floor, also to reduce noise. It’s also staffed 24/7.

Bernard began the Yellow House because her son Bill has autism. He’s one of the residents here.

"He moved in here in November. It’s been nothing but positive for him. He’s really thrived being out of our house and being on his own."

When Bill was young he wasn’t welcome at the same summer camps as his brothers. Bernard didn’t think it was right. Her goal has become to provide Bill and others with the autism the same opportunities as typically functioning individuals. It’s the philosophy of Ascendigo, the Yellow House’s sister organization that provides programming for adults and kids.

"So if other kids do summer camps, we want our kids to do it, if other kids ski, we’re going to ski, if you go out to the restaurant, our guys will go out to the restaurant," she says.

The Yellow House is an experiment in community based living and it’s badly needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in 68 children are identified with autism spectrum disorder. Children diagnosed when the prevalence of autism shot up, are now adults, so independent housing is needed.

Hugh Zucker is Ascendigo’s executive director.

"Most people don’t understand what the alternative is. What the alternative often looks like is an adult with autism in a room in their house, all day long, watching TV or isolated," he says.

He says most parents don’t have the energy or tool kit to get their child from that position to independence.

"It’s a very resource-intensive, skill-intensive proposition, so a lot of what we’re doing here is prototyping - trying to develop strategies and ways that we can eventually get more efficient and access insurance and medicaid to do this sort of thing."

Back in the Yellow House, Sallie Bernard points out the technology in the living room.

iPads and tablets are popular for those with autism. It’s an easy way to communicate and express emotion - actions that can be difficult. Alta Otto with Ascendigo has seen it first hand with her son Jack.

"He uses emojis to tell me when he’s really upset. I know if I get the red hot face, he’s really upset and a big smiley face means he’s having a good time. Before, he would just explode."

Besides technology, the living room at the Yellow House has big bean bag chairs - another hot item, says Bernard.

Reporter: "Why is all the rage in the autism community?"

Bernard: “There’s something about it - you sink into it, so it wraps around your body. It’s calming.”

Twenty years ago, Bernard says, her son would have lived in an institution or at home. She hopes the Yellow House concept will be duplicated in other communities so more people with autism will have a place to go when they reach adulthood.