Cultivating life skills

Autism Project cuts ribbon on new community garden

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Tiny, growing peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and broccoli flowers hang from flexible green branches in the raised garden bed outside.

A newly erected fence surrounds The Autism Project’s backyard; a barrier of safety for the Unity Community members who frequent the organization’s Atwood Avenue headquarters, now in its 25th year in Johnston.

Nicole Cadick, of Coventry, a Unity Community member, stood next to the planter, admiring the former seedlings that have just recently started to present their fruits, weeks into autumn.

“I think we worked very hard together,” she said. “I’m very proud.”

Some of the Unity Community’s members — now in their mid-to-late 20s — have been spending their days at The Autism Project since they were toddlers.

“Several members of the Unity Community … have been with The Autism Project since they were 3, 4, 5 years old, and they are here,” The Autism Project (TAP) Executive Director Joanne G. Quinn told the audience gathered for a ribbon-cutting last Wednesday morning. “I want to thank their parents for continuing to trust us with their children, and continuing to nudge us, asking, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’”

A red fabric ribbon was snipped behind The Autism Project, signifying the start of a new community garden, and celebrating the installation of the new fence.

“The garden is built and maintained by our members of a new program for autistic adults called Unity Community,” according to Quinn. “TAP will work with the URI (University of Rhode Island) Master Gardeners to expand the garden in 2023. The fencing of the yard is significant because it is now a safe place for some of our members at risk for elopement … TAP services all of RI with our programming.”

The gardens are slowly starting to produce vegetables. TAP staff and families hope the garden may eventually help to provide fresh produce for local food banks. Elevated planters may eventually, hopefully, line the entire outdoor fence, generating a wide variety of edible plants.

“The Autism Project has evolved significantly since 1997, but our core identity remains the same: we are a collaboration of parents, professionals, and community members dedicated to providing high-quality and accessible support, training, and programming for children, their families, and the professionals who work with them,” according to the organization’s website. “Though we focus on children and youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), we've also learned over the years that many of the supports and strategies that work well for children with ASD can be beneficial for all. Today, (TAP) offers services and programs for children with ASD, developmental delays and disabilities, and social-emotional challenges, and their families and communities.”

The Autism Project has slowly grown into the building it occupies at 1516 Atwood Ave., Johnston. A back storage area has been converted into a fitness room, with stationary bikes and stair climbers. Staff hope to reinvigorate a small greenhouse attached to the building’s rear — an interesting detail in a previously constructed commercial space — fixing a rolling metal shutter, so that the Unity Community can garden year-round.

Originally known as The RI Autism Project, Inc., TAP “started with a group of special educators, therapists, and parents of children with ASDs, who came together over a shared concern about the lack of resources and programming available to children with ASDs in Rhode Island,” according to the organization’s online history. “In response to this concern, in early 1997, The Autism Society of Rhode Island formed an ad hoc committee of parents, therapists, administrators, autism specialists, union representatives, and members of the medical and Early Intervention communities. The result was a request for funding through the Rhode Island Department of Education's (RIDE) Office of Special Needs.”

RIDE awarded grants to TAP for several years, but soon it became clear the organization needed more diverse funding sources to support its rapid growth. In 2000, TAP incorporated and started to search for alternative funding sources. The non-profit hired Quinn in 2002, and she was tasked with growing the business into an independent organization.

Two decades later, TAP “has expanded to offer multiple levels of parent and professional training, social skills groups for all abilities, consultation and coaching for educators in public schools and community organizations, a summer camp, peer navigation and support, and advocacy.”

“Today our programming supports all children in their development of emotional regulation, problem-solving, executive function skills, resiliency and self-worth,” TAP touts on its website.

The Unity Community recently thinly sliced and baked some of their early eggplants, transforming them into super healthy and tasty eggplant chips.

Citizen’s Bank sent volunteers to help prepare the yard for gardening. The Jacavone Garden Center, just down the street at 1461 Atwood Ave., provided most of the young plants the community will be cultivating and eventually harvesting.

Quinn introduced Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, noting that he previously worked as a nurse (the crowd applauded).

Polisena presented TAP with an official town commendation, recognizing the group’s hard work, determination, and importance to the Johnston, and greater Ocean State, community.

“I want to thank all of you for what you do,” Polisena told them.

TAP has been introducing new programs like yoga and cooking.

“We are really also encouraging volunteering … Thank you to all of our Unity Community members for all you do to help us,” Quinn told the audience last Wednesday. “We plan to expand this, add more, more participants, as we can … We’re starting the night group for participants who are probably in the college level, or out in the work field … because when we did our focus groups, regardless of where our children were, everybody came back (and said) I want a place I recognize, I want it to be safe, and I want to continue learning with my friends.”

Lead facilitators Lisa McCay and Lore Gray stood applauding, and shouted out an extra “thank you” to everyone in the room.

After snacking on apple cider and fall-themed cookies, the crowd moved outside to the garden. It had rained all morning, so the grass was still wet and the clouds were dark. It was late evening, and the early October sun was about to set.

A longtime Unity Community member’s mother, Maria DeSimone, was handed the ceremonial shears. With a booming final round of applause, she snipped the red ribbon in half, and the community garden was officially open. The entire community will anxiously await the resulting fruits of The Autism Project’s cultivation efforts.

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