Erin O’Loughlin wonders about her son’s future. Marcus, now 7, is autistic and likely will never live alone.
“Once my husband and I are gone, we need to have some sort of groundwork and plan for him,” said O’Loughlin, 37, of Cary.
Earlier this year, O’Loughlin founded 3 Irish Jewels Farm, a nonprofit that aims to open an assisted-living farm community where adults with autism could live and autistic children could visit. The group will undertake its biggest-yet fundraiser, a golf tournament, in Durham this month.
O’Loughlin envisions residents tending a community garden, feeding the animals, riding horses, making crafts and selling their wares at an on-site store and farmers market. She has her eye on a tract of land between Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs; she figures she needs at least $500,000 to get started.
Children with autism often receive services through school and therapy programs. But as they become adults, many still need help. A residential farm would give them not only a place to live, but a sense of purpose, O’Loughlin said.
Rates of diagnosis of autism, a disorder that affects brain development and social interactions, have been on the rise. One in 88 children is diagnosed with some form of autism, according to a report released this year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the mid-1970s, O’Loughlin said, just 3 in 10,000 children were diagnosed with the condition.
In North Carolina, about 60,000 people have some form of autism, said David Laxton, director of communications for the Autism Society of North Carolina.
As children with autism get older, families need more residential options, Laxton said. The state doesn’t have enough group homes, and institutional settings are expensive. An assisted-living farm is ideal, he said, because residents could gain job skills.
“How we take care of those who can’t take care of themselves fully is going to be a huge societal problem over the next decade or two,” Laxton said. ‘We want him to have a life’
Andrew Moriarty, 43 and an engineer in Raleigh, said he and his wife also worry about the future of their 9-year-old son, Brendan.
“Our vision is not to institutionalize Brendan,” Moriarty said. “(But) he can’t live with us forever. We want him to have a life.”
Moriarty now serves on the board of directors for 3 Irish Jewels Farm. Someday, he said, he would like Brendan to live on a farm like the one O’Loughlin is planning.
O’Loughlin, a former marketing director who is now a stay-at-home mom, said she was devastated when Marcus was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. But now, she doesn’t measure his success by how much he talks or whether he can read and write. She just wants him to be happy. The challenges
O’Loughlin knows her dream for 3 Irish Jewels Farm won’t happen overnight. Depending on fundraising and available land, she hopes to open the first phase of the farm by 2015 and offer day programs. Then she’d undertake a capital campaign to raise more money to build four or five houses on the property.
“It all depends on who gets on board and what kind of funding I get,” she said.
While there is a huge need for such programs, Laxton said they are expensive to maintain. Medicaid, the federal health-care program for the poor, likely wouldn’t cover all the costs.
But similar programs exist. The Carolina Living & Learning Center in Pittsboro, a program through UNC-Chapel Hill, offers a residential setting for adults with autism.
In Wake, O’Loughlin said there is a big need for 3 Irish Jewels Farm, named for her three children and their Irish father, Colm.
For now, she’s celebrating Marcus’ successes. He has helped the family realize that how they treat people is what matters most, O’Loughlin said.
“He’s goofy, he’s giggly,” she said of her son. “He has his mood swings, but he’s innately very sweet and has an endearing personality, and always has.”