STAATSBURG, N.Y. - For some families, keeping their autistic child at home is just not possible. Many need specialized care, like Jackie and Andy Mandel’s son Jonathan.
"When you're pregnant and you have a baby, you think, ‘Oh, they are going to do this, this and this,’" Jackie offered. "We had to change what we thought. And what we really wanted was a happy and healthy baby."
Now 20, Jonathan enjoys playing basketball and many other activities at the Anderson Center for Autism in Duchess County, New York.
"Autism is not a choice," Jackie continued. "It wasn't our choice for our son to have autism, but acceptance is. And acceptance is so important in our society."
When Jonathan turned 14, his parents made the difficult decision to move him 180 miles away from his home in Port Washington, Long Island so he could live in the Anderson Center’s residential facility.
"I was in tears in the car," Jackie recalled. "It was very difficult. That was the first time he was ever away from us for one night, ever. We had never left him at all. He had never been away from us. It was very difficult."
Jonathan uses a tablet to help him communicate.
Jonathan’s parents tried keeping him at home, but even with help, Jonathan required more care than his family could provide, including supervision around the clock.
"Having a child with special needs is difficult on the family unit, I think. It's difficult on the marriage. It's difficult for everyone who lives in the house," Jackie explained. "We wanted to alleviate the stress for all of us but most importantly for Jonathan. It worked out really well."
Jonathan is non-verbal but he communicates in many other ways, including by using his computer. The assistive technology speaks for him. When someone asks Jonathan a question, he answers by pressing on a picture of what he wants to say; the device then reads the word aloud.
An evolving program
The Anderson Center for Autism is a New York State Department of Education approved private school. Students are referred to the school by their home school district.
The Anderson Center opened nearly 100 years ago in 1924. It sits on 150 acres near the Hudson River south of Rhinebeck. The program has evolved. It now attracts caregivers from all over the world to study how they do things there.
Patrick Paul, the executive director and CEO, says their key to success is the highly trained staff who have learned to adapt to challenges.
"The focus of this really truly is to prepare them for life," he explained. "Even though every child is different, many times the behaviors are the same."
Patrick Paul, executive director and CEO
There's clearly a need for the services offered by the Anderson Center for Autism. Every year, they have to turn away 600 families because they don't have the space.
"If we have three or four of these facilities that we have here, the campus here, they'd be full," Paul continued. "We don't even know what it would take to meet the need."
Daily life, with a long-range purpose
Jonathan lives with other young adults in a dormitory-like setting. He has his own room and shares a common living room, kitchen and dining area. Everyone follows a daily, structured, schedule.
Jonathan has learned to make his bed, do laundry, cook something to eat and clean up after himself.
These tasks may seem simple but for some people on the spectrum, learning how to do them is crucial these are life skills to help him and his classmates become more independent.
"He's being taught by people who understand fully what autism is and understand that each individual with autism has to be looked at differently because they have different skill sets. He's able to have independence here on campus that, frankly, we couldn't offer him," Jackie said. "He's got a great life here."
So what's next for Jonathan? In June, he will graduate and age out of the center, which means he's now hoping to move into a group home on Long Island.
Jonathan has learned and changed a lot since arriving at the school, but what remains the same is his parents’ love and dreams for his future.
"Jonathan is happy and healthy," Jackie added, "and that really a blessing."