Arts & Culture News

Nonprofit Austen’s Autistic Adventures Wants to Defeat Autism Unemployment Rates

Members of Austen’s Autistic Adventures learn to socialize at the nonprofit's events.
Members of Austen’s Autistic Adventures learn to socialize at the nonprofit's events. Jamie Wheeler
Logan McGee celebrated his 15th birthday at Main Event in Plano, where he was serenaded by a chorus of guests to the tune of "Happy Birthday." For the first time, his guests included friends.                                   

Logan has been homeschooled since the sixth grade. He was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of 1. ASD is a neurological developmental disability, the spectrum for the disorder is widespread and the effect on an individual's functionality is subjective and varied.

Logan requires learning to be at his own pace and the public school system he attended was incapable of fulfilling Logan’s needs. His parents now homeschool him, using a curriculum that emphasizes life skills.

Although his education and developmental skills have been supplemented through homeschooling, socialization has not. Logan’s social circle has always been confined to family. That changed when he became the youngest member of Austen’s Autistic Adventures in 2018.

“You kind of take those birthdays for granted until you realize how important and what it means to them to actually get to have a birthday party and also be invited to a birthday party,” says Justine McGee, Logan’s mother and secretary of Austen’s Autistic Adventures. “So many of our kids weren't ever invited to a birthday party.”

Former adjunct literature professor Jamie Wheeler founded Austen’s Autistic Adventures, a nonprofit, in 2017 when her daughter, Austen Wheeler, began to regress.

Austen once flourished at Lake Highlands High School. She was a soloist in choir, a member of the Young Life special needs club and a member of the theater. Then she graduated.

“All her friends went away to college,” Wheeler says. “They got the jobs, and she just lost her entire social circle, just immediately. One day, she had lots of things to do and the next day, she had nothing.”

As Austen’s social world shrank, her behavior changed. She became obsessed with Sesame Street as an escape to a time of comfort. She reverted to crying and biting herself, behaviors she had not exhibited since the age of 6.

Determined to give her daughter a fulfilling life, Wheeler set out to find a program that would fit the three tenets necessary for her to care for her daughter: affordability, flexibility and frequency. She came up empty handed, so she set out to create the program her daughter needed.

Austen’s Autistic Adventures is a social development group for autistic young adults 16 years and older. The organization plans events Monday through Friday that average approximately two hours. The cost is typically between $10 to $25 per event. Families are able to decide how often to attend.

“What we want to focus on is maintaining and improving social skills because autism is not an intellectual disability, it's a problem with social interaction,” Wheeler says. “They need to be out in the world, not just in a contained classroom setting, but where they are going out and interacting with neurotypical people in settings that are sensory challenging because that's how the world is.”

Austen, who is now 24, and the other members of Austen’s Autistic Adventures now have a robust social life. Wheeler encourages members to join in activities as frequently as possible. Past activities have included art classes, trampoline parks, cooking classes, horse ranches, kayaking and attending the Scarborough Renaissance Faire.

The frequent socialization through the group has been significant for many members, as they are encouraged to overcome fears.

At the age of 10, Nick Burslem, now 32, joined his family on a horse ranch. His grandmother adored horses, and the family was delighted to have Nick join in the affair. The horse Nick was riding blasted off and the staff did not let his mother go after him. The horse returned to the stable, but Nick did not. Nick was discovered between two boulders, fear-ridden with a new aversion to horses.

Recently, Austen’s Autistic Adventures visited India Road Stables. Organizers eased participants into the experience by having them feed the horses first and then caressing them. Once participants were ready, they rode the horses. Nick examined his peers' interactions as they developed rapport with the animals. When they began to ride the horses, Nick gathered up the courage to participate. By the end of the day, Nick had rewired his impression of horses and asked to return to the ranch.

Like Austen, Nick did not fare well in transitional programming. He had participated in state programs for adults with disabilities, where he was assigned career evaluators who expressed frustration with Nick’s difficulties with task orientation and adaptability.

“People can't see past their disability sometimes to see what all they can do,” Rebecca Burslem, Nick’s mother and Austen’s Autistic Adventures chairwoman, says. “One of the things with being a special needs adult is you don't get a lot of choices in your life. Everybody makes decisions for you. … It hurts as a mother to know that.”

Frustrated by the dismissive evaluations he received in the program, Nick has spent his time with his family instead of in the workforce. He grocery shops, mows the lawn and participates in water aerobics with his parents.

Autism Speaks, a national autism advocacy charity, reports that 85% of adults diagnosed with ASD are unemployed. The jobs that are available to adults with ASD are generally isolating and banal — such as blacking out addresses on the front of magazines, sorting hangers, cleaning theaters and washing dishes.

Austen’s Autistic Adventures plans to change that.

“I’d like to learn all the positions at AMC and rise up to become a manager,” Alex Dill, a member of Austen’s Autistic Adventures, said recently in a YouTube video. Dill is an usher at an AMC theater.

“It's amazing what happens when you find their interest levels, find that special thing where they can use their skills. ... There's a lot of wasted talent in the autistic world that's not being tapped into.” – Rebecca Burslem

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On North Texas Giving Day, Austen’s Autistic Adventures raised $10,000 for their next venture. The organization plans to open Spectrum Resale and Gallery, a resale shop and art gallery hybrid that will employ their members and be a venue to host their classes.

“Within our retail space, we're also going to have a gallery space where members can sell, show and profit from their work,” Wheeler says. “That'll be another way that we can get the word out about the abilities that people with autism have.”

Through art lessons, Wheeler says, members have been able to expand their capabilities to produce complex paintings.

Spectrum Resale and Gallery will be the first home for the organization. The board aims to find commercial space to lease in Carrollton, a central location for the majority of the members.

The $10,000 raised is only the first stepping stone for the nonprofit. Since its inception, Austen’s Autistic Adventures has been supported by private donations. Friends, family and donations raised through Facebook have allowed the organization to continue.

“I don't think the $10,000 is going to go very far when we start looking at real estate to lease,” Lisa Christian, Austen’s Autistic Adventures vice president, says. “It was great that we were able to raise that much money, but it's almost like seed money for what we're gonna have to have to support the program.”

The organization hopes to raise at least an additional $30,000 as a starter fund for the resale shop. Donations can be made on the organization's website.

Aside from donations, the nonprofit also encourages community members to get involved as volunteers. It's through community involvement that the organization has been able to foster their members' talents.

Recently, member Ryan Chronic, a graphic artist who has never held a full-time job, was encouraged to design a new logo for the Friends of the Dallas Municipal Archives. The board unanimously approved Chronic’s design and it now graces their correspondence and materials. Chronic is also designed the initial logo for Austen’s Autistic Adventures.

“It's amazing what happens when you find their interest levels, find that special thing where they can use their skills,” Burslem says. “There's a lot of wasted talent in the autistic world that's not being tapped into.”
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Desiree Gutierrez is a music and culture intern at the Dallas Observer. Equipped with her education from Dallas College Brookhaven Campus and the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism, Desiree has transformed the ability to overthink just about anything into a budding career in journalism.

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