Study projects housing needs of autistic adults

Elizabeth McBreen

It is projected that as many as 500,000 autistic children will reach adulthood in the next 15 years. These adults will have varying levels of independence, and will outlive their parents. Where will they go? This is the question that a collaborative report by the Urban Land Institute Arizona (ULI), the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), and Arizona State University (ASU) tries to answer.

The collaboration between ULI and SARRC dates back a decade, says SARRC co-founder and Public Relations consultant Denise Resnick. “The real estate industry in Phoenix has been very supportive of SARRC, and from the beginning, we’ve been concerned about adults living with autism and their housing needs,” says Resnick.

After years of comprehensive evaluation of residential design models from all over the country, the group wrote Opening Doors: A Discussion of Residential Options for Adults Living with Autism and Related Disorders. The report focuses on the needs of this population and is “designed to advance the development of residential models that offer quality, affordable housing options within the fabric of their communities.”

To begin their discussion on the long-term residential needs of autistic adults, ULI and SARRC brought together real estate developers, specialists in affordable housing, financiers, architects, and public policy leaders. SARRC also elicited data directly from families and began collaborating with Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism (AFAA). A ULI-SARRC steering committee was formed to direct the research for the study, and over 100 residential options across the United States were surveyed. Ultimately, 17 sites were selected for more thorough research by the committee. The collected data was then evaluated based on its financial feasibility and scalability.

Resnick says that it will take a public, private, and non-profit collaboration to make these residential homes a reality. “None of us can do it alone,” says Resnick. “It will take a financial catalyst, a service provision in the homes that can scale to the supply of necessary homes, communities that engage individuals with autism in all aspects, and it will take public policy.”

Moving forward, prototypes demonstrating different real estate configurations such as multiple family homes and group homes will be established across the country. “They will help us determine what works, what represents a best practice, what is scalable and replicable,” says Resnick. Right now, Resnick says that there are few options that can be easily re-created in a residential environment.

One of the challenges cited in the report is acquiring services for the residents. The study reports a lack of service providers that will be necessary to meet the needs of the population requiring housing in the next several years. “While there are many organizations which offer these services,” states the report, “quality is variable and no program working at scale exists to ensure caregivers are properly trained, assessed, and monitored.” Opening Doors also reports a lack of information about market demand and the demographics of the population, since many autistic adults live with their parents, and a lack of documented design guidelines.

To counter each of these challenges, Opening Doors also includes recommendations and next steps. These include creating an interactive database of housing options, developing prototypes to determine best practices, and testing “soft infrastructure” support models. To meet the needs of autistic adults in terms of soft infrastructure, or services, the report recommends that “a coalition of local and regional providers should be created that spans a variety of populations. Armed with the results of the market survey, this group will work to develop cost effective programs for execution within a variety of housing frameworks.”

The full report can be found online at: Resnick says that more affordable housing for people who are unable to live on their own is imperative, and the study is a significant step in that process. “We have to learn from those who came before us,” says Resnick. “That’s why it was so important to spend time evaluating what is already out there.”

The companion study to Opening Doors, which focuses on housing innovations and design guidelines for the special needs population, is called Advancing Full Spectrum Housing: Design for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The report can be found at:

Courtesy of Spectrum Publications

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