Ardith and Larry Tenison were willing to do just about anything to help their son — even uproot and move from Oregon to Southern Arizona.
Their plight is a common one for parents of adult children with severe autism.
After searching nationwide, Ardith was thrilled to get Alex a spot at Echoing Hope Ranch in Hereford. Her son has been living there for several months now while she and her husband are about an hour away, in Vail.
“As we were getting older, we knew we wanted to find a safe place for him,” said Ardith, 60.
Harlie Garcia, Echoing Hope’s board president, said the ranch has about seven other out-of-state inquiries since it opened nearly two years ago, many from parents trying to plan ahead for their teen children.
About 500,000 children with autism will become adults in the next decade, says the advocacy and research group Autism Speaks. One in 88 children nationwide is considered to be on the autism spectrum, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says. In Arizona, it’s one in 64.
The brain disorder affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with varying degrees of severity. Many people with autism can live independently, but those with more severe symptoms cannot.
Jodi Feuerhelm, 55, still lives in Phoenix but bought a second home in Bisbee when her son moved to Echoing Hope in June. She stays there when she visits Daniel, she said, and plans to retire there eventually.
“It was awfully far away from Phoenix to put him down there and not have anyone close by,” she said.
Feuerhelm said Daniel, 22, loves the ranch. He especially enjoys the goats, feeding the chickens and working in the garden.
“It’s much better than anything I could have provided him in Phoenix,” she said. “It’s such a great life.”
Ranch is a former inn
Formerly the San Pedro River Inn, the ranch is surrounded by cottonwood trees and stunning mountain views. It will eventually have 10 beds for residents 18 and older, but renovations have to be completed first. There are currently five permanent residents and seven day-program participants.
At 25, Alex Tenison is the oldest resident. He is adjusting well, his mother said. “Alex likes a lot of sports and to be around peers that are his age,” she said, adding that many mistakenly believe people with autism like to be alone all the time.
“That’s just not true. They very much long to be with other people, and that’s the beauty of this ranch environment,” she said.
But the move was not without challenges. For one thing, it took time to get their medical coverage re-established in Arizona, she said.
“We even had to dredge up all the old autism paperwork to prove that he has autism,” Ardith said, sighing. “That took about three or four months.”
More than half of all children with autism are insured by Medicaid, reports Autism Speaks, and it’s often a long wait to get coverage in place, which can make moving even more challenging.
Leslie Long, director of adult services for Autism Speaks, said a survey the group did last year showed many of the 10,000 respondents would be willing to move to help their child, but concerns about Medicaid coverage are a big barrier.
“Say you’ve been waiting for years to get that. You can’t pick it up and move it to another state,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges we have for adults with autism.”
Parents can relax
For a long time, Tucson teacher Della Thompson feared her son would end up somewhere he’d find boring. But that’s not the case anymore, as her son loves tending the animals at Echoing Hope Ranch.
“I feel so much more at peace knowing that he’s safe and happy,” said Thompson, 53, whose son, John, 20, moved in over the summer. “He just took to it like a duck to water and has been having so much fun with the independence of being able to take care of himself.”
The transition wasn’t as easy for Thompson. Her son doesn’t speak, she said, and she found herself worrying about him constantly.
“I kept thinking, ‘Is he homesick? Does he want to come back home and can’t tell me?’ ” she said.
Garcia, the board president, said her son started going down for the day program only, but has now lived at the ranch for two months.
She also felt anxious at first, but said she is becoming more relaxed as time passes, and she sees Jonathan, 20, doing more and more on his own.
“He still needs a lot of prompting and help,” she said, “but overall seems to be really enjoying it.”