RONAN — “The sooner the better.” Those are the words of Rich Janssen referring to the need for a live-in care facility that provides comprehensive care aimed at adults with autism. None exist in the state of Montana at this point. Rich and Julie Janssen know that because their 23-year-old son Jake was diagnosed with autism approximately 20 years ago when he was 2 years, 9 months old. They have been searching for such a facility to place Jake for the last few years but have come up empty handed.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), more commonly referred to as autism, is a disorder with a variety of conditions that challenge the individual’s social skills, verbal and written communication, and repetitive behaviors.
Jake, who completed his education in a Ronan High School individual education program in 2013, is now an adult and his parents are getting up in their years and are concerned about Jake’s future, knowing that they will not always be there to ensure he is being cared for.
They also would like to see their son enter the world of adulthood as much as he can without them. However, when making the decision about placing Jake in an assisted living group facility, they soon found out that the state has no facility to meet special needs of autism-diagnosed children and adults. They tried to place Jake in local assisted living facilities but were turned down. It takes specialized education, training and skills to properly work with people with autism.
Down, but not out, the Janssens then realized it was up to them to carry on with the mission to provide an assisted living facility for adults with autism. Their answer is a facility with staff skills aimed at providing not only 24/7 care but also comprehensive care aimed at the special needs of autistic adults: appropriate level of education and skill development as well as therapy.
“Our son’s denial of community placement fueled this effort. We are a proactive family caught in a reactive system,” Julie said. “Our son will have the home he deserves, in his community and independent of his aging parents, and we’ll make sure others have that opportunity too.”
Julie added that it is very important to not warehouse the clients but to motivate them, educate them and develop their skills to whatever level that might be.
The Proactive Living Facility (PLF) is the manifestation of the mission and it is now a registered non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with an eight person board of directors.
The first big step in the PLF mission was the purchase land. Mission accomplished with the purchase of 11.5 acres of land just west of Ronan. Upon the acreage the Janssens envision four separate 4,020 square feet housing units, each with four private rooms with bathrooms, an enclosed recreation area, a common area living room and dining area, a kitchen and pantry, an office, a therapy room, a laundry room, an attached garage and a covered porch main entry. There are finger-crossed plans to break ground on the first PLF unit this spring with hopes of completion in December.
They will start with construction of one of the four units then onto the rest as fundraising allows — they recently received an anonymous $150,000. The Janssens also recognize the need for such facilities statewide and envision an expansion of similar facilities throughout Montana because the need is there.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one out of every 68 children within the United States is autistic. However, autism is more common in boys than in girls, affecting one out of every 42 boys, and one out of every 189 girls.
In Montana, Rich said there has been a significant rise in autistic students in public schools’ individual education program, much of growth is due to diagnosis as opposed to a major increase in autism itself. In the 2005-2006 school year there were 372 autistic students in Montana public schools. Last school year (2017-2018) there were 1,632. Many now are adults and many others — like Jake — will soon be adults.
The Janssens know their mission is expensive but is needed by not only them but by other Montanans. The state has no such autism-specialized facility and the local group homes won’t accept adults with autism. And there needs to be.
For more information on the Proactive Living Facility project, visit website: https://proactivelivingfacility.org/