April is national autism awareness month. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability. Oftentimes, signs of ASD appear early in childhood when some young children have difficulties communicating and socially interacting with others. ASD is a spectrum condition meaning ASD affects individuals differently. For some, this could mean difficulty making eye-contact with the people in their lives but for others with ASD, verbal communication might be nearly impossible without proper care and professional analysis. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that autism had risen to 1 in every 59 births in the United States. While advances in science and care have aided a societal understanding of this complex condition, the processes and systems in place rarely account for what happens to someone with ASD when they grow up. For many people and their families “aging out of the system” is a very stressful and real existence. In Washington, special education is available for individuals from three to 21-years-old which seems to poignantly pose the question: what happens next?
The Seattle Children’s Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center (ABC) in Bothell (19213 Bothell Way NE, Bothell, WA 98011) has been one of the brightest, hopeful answers to this concerning query since 2014. Recognized nationally as one of the most innovative spaces for adults with ASD, the center began with just eight students. Now, they have more than 150 enrolled in classes ranging from cooking and baking, to art and drama, Zumba and swim, to volunteer club and rock band. Charles and Barbara Burnett, whose daughter Alyssa has ASD, founded the Tessera Center for Lifelong Learning in 2004. A decade later in July of 2014, the Burnetts and Tessera donated $7 million, including Tessera’s space in Bothell, to launch Seattle Children’s Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center. This groundbreaking center offers 45 different courses in addition to special events and outings, and all programming is intentionally designed to enhance quality of life and promote meaningful opportunities for lifelong learning. The courses are typically 12 weeks long and range from health and wellness to social skills to drama, art and more. All courses are constructed to foster a creative, educational experience for the individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities. Classes are taught by talented and passionate community members who are experts in the class topics and receive training with guidance from Seattle Children’s behavior specialists. The hope is for instructors to gain the experience they need to return to the community and continue working with this important population. Charles Burnett passed away June 1 of 2017 but his life’s work of making the world a more equitable place for people like his daughter Alyssa shines on brightly. Barbara, a Woodinville resident, is still deeply involved with the Alyssa Burnett Center and Seattle Children’s and a fierce advocate for her daughter, and the thousands of adults like her living with ASD.
Dr. Gary Stobbe is the director of the Adult Transition Program at Seattle Children’s Autism Center. He said, “These are lifelong conditions and our commitment to the individuals and families affected doesn’t stop at a certain age. Providing services for adults in our region allows us to meet their needs while also honing a model that can be replicated by organizations across the country.” One thing ABC has made certain of is that no one will ever “age out” of their program.
ABC is very proud of their partnership with the University of Washington and University of Washington Bothell. ABC has served as an active training and internship site for students across many disciplines including social work, nursing, health studies, community psychology and business. ABC brings on interns every quarter of the schoolyear and to date has welcomed over 100 interns through their doors. Getting involved with the ABC is an excellent way to support the community and bring support to a population of people who are eager to learn and excited to get into the workforce. For more information on teaching at ABC, volunteering, or donating please visit: https://www.seattlechildrens.org/contact/alyssa-burnett-adult-life-center/get-involved/