Couple builds a community for their adult son with autism

Allison Slater Tate

Debra Caudy's youngest child, Jon, was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism when he was four years old, and her life changed forever. Now, her family is trying to change the lives of others living with autism.

At the time of Jon's diagnosis, Caudy was a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer. She and her husband, Clay Heighten, an emergency doctor and later the founder of a healthcare real estate management company, were raising their children in Dallas, Texas. Immediately after they found out about Jon's condition, Caudy left her medical practice to work with and teach him at home full-time.

"I loved my practice and my patients, but it was the right thing to do for Jon, myself, and our family," Caudy told TODAY Parents. "I wanted to submerge myself in his programming and also be able to parent his three older sisters.

"I have no regrets on that decision. It was easy for me to make," she said.

Now, Jon is 19 years old, and his parents are determined to make sure he has just as much of a chance at a fulfilling adult life as his sisters Hannah, 27, Olivia, 26, and Ellen, 23. For years, they have been leading a project called 29 Acres, a 501c3 charitable foundation they founded with hopes to build a sustainable community where adults with autism could safely live and work.

"Jon was about 15 when I started realizing that the ongoing support and housing options in North Texas were not plentiful and also wouldn't be able to support Jon in a way where he would continue to grow, be productive, and engage with his local community," Caudy said.

For the growing number of individuals like Jon with significant special needs who are quickly aging out of the school system, the need for support and learning does not just end when they hit a magic birthday. Caudy and Heighten looked at communities around the country that support adults with special needs such as Bittersweet Farms in Ohio, First Place AZ in Phoenix, and Sweetwater Spectrum in California before creating 29 Acres with other families for a viable place in North Texas to do the same.

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