Iowa farm teaches adults with autism life lessons

Courtney Crowder
The Des Moines Register


In this April 17, 2017, Lloyd Williams plants seeds at The Homestead Farm in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Homestead farm is governed by a set of distinct ecosystems.

Like many other acreages across Iowa, the symbiotic relationships between soil, weather, farmers, seeds and pollinators produce the foods that make up our dinners.

But unlike so many other farms, the most important ecosystem at the Homestead is the one happening above ground, between people. It's the strength and expansion of the estate's emotional ecosystem that will be used to determine whether 2017's yield was up to par. And its smiles and fist bumps, not acres planted or crops harvested, that will dictate a successful day.

Because on this particular acreage, most employees have autism spectrum disorder, which can severely impair communication and social skills, The Des Moines Register reported.

So while the men of the Homestead and the specifically trained associates who work alongside them harvest veggies for a Community Supported Agriculture program, their mission is more than farming. The Homestead is training these men for life.

In this April 17, 2017, photo, farmhands and people with autism harvest and bundle radishes at The Homestead Farm in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

"On this farm, what really matters is how a person grows — not what they grow," said Angela Book-Glynn, a director at the Homestead, a Des Moines-based nonprofit focused on improving autistic Iowans' lives.

Located just east of Southeast Polk High School, the farm currently employs four men who have autism — Thomas Kroska, Tony Hunter, Lloyd Williams and James Holaday.

Monday through Friday, they are tasked with all that goes into keeping up a working farm. They plant fields, harvest fruits and veggies, box them up for the Homestead's CSA — which runs until the end of September and is still accepting members — and deliver those packages to specified pickup locations. They also create hanging baskets, prepare bedding plants, cultivate poinsettias and construct live wreathes.

In doing so, the men are bucking the "upsetting" trend of adults on the spectrum lacking opportunities for meaningful, paid employment, Book-Glynn said. Even though advocates have pushed organizations big and small to employ differently abled people, many autistic adults remain unemployed or underemployed, experts say.

The farm's goal is to give their employees an opportunity to dip their toes into the workforce, eventually growing their skills and confidence enough to find a job in the greater community just as their regularly developing peers do.

"For us, this is so much bigger than just getting a box of produce," said Book-Glynn. "I strongly believe that if you can contribute to your income, you can contribute to society. And that's what we want for the (employees) here, to be contributing members of society who are proud of their work and themselves.

"That's what everyone — no matter their ability — deserves."

In this April 17, 2017, photo, Lloyd Williams plants onions at The Homestead Farm in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

Farmhands and autistic adults harvest and bundle radishes at the Homestead farm in Pleasant Hill on Monday, April 17, 2017. The program provides meaningful paid employment for autistic adults to earn wages in an environment that understands and responds to their condition's very specific needs.

Breakfast at Kroska's apartment, where he lives with two other autistic men, used to be a silent affair, said Don Cochran, Kroska's longtime aide. Like hear-a-pin-drop silent, he said, and you'd be hard pressed to get him to look you in the eye.

"You'd be lucky to get two words out of him the whole day," Cochran said.

But after seven years of working on the farm, the mornings at Kroska's apartment are louder. Kroska has a full menu that he asks for at breakfast, Cochran said, and he'll throw out questions about Cochran's family or what they're going to do that day.

While seemingly small, the ability to hold eye contact, start conversations and respond to questions or remarks in the moment was a major milestone for Kroska, Cochran and Book-Glynn agreed. Those are entry-level skills to interacting as an independent individual, they said.

"His interaction with others is so much greater than it was before because of working on the farm," Cochran said. "I see a lot more confidence in him. I think, in general, he is a shy person, but now he's glowing and brimming with spirit and assurance."

Both attribute that development to his time on the farm, where he has to interact with colleagues, problem solve and articulate issues and desires.

To understand how programs like the Homestead farm impact people with autism, one has to redefine the words "big" and "small," Book-Glynn said. It's really that seemingly small changes make a huge impact in these men's lives, she said.

"In our society, work defines who you are," Book-Glynn said. "It gives you self-esteem. You hear that all the time, 'What do you do?' With this job, they can say, 'I work on a farm.' Or 'I plant potatoes.'

"Or maybe for someone who is working on life skills in general it is, 'I got to get up,'" she continued. "'I got to set an alarm.' 'I have to know how to get to work on time.' 'I have to know how to focus.' Whatever it is, they have a purpose now."

In this April 17, 2017, photo, Tony Hunter, plants vegetables at The Homestead Farm in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

In addition to communication difficulties, autistic people often also have sensory issues. Certain sounds or lights can be extremely distracting, Book-Glynn said, as can tasks that don't have specific beginnings or endings.

But so many of the pitfalls an autistic person might experience in an office environment aren't an issue at the farm, she added.

Fluorescent lights are replaced by the sun's rays. Endless tasks are interchanged with structured requirements. And whenever an employee needs a break or to switch assignments, the answer is undoubtedly "OK."

While both big businesses like Walgreens are making hiring employees with disabilities a part of corporate culture and smaller startups like Chicago-based Aspiritech are pushing innovative solutions to create a more welcoming workplace, 90 percent of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, according to Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, a consortium of autism advocacy organizations.

More specifically, only 36 percent of adults ages 18 to 25 and 58 percent of adults ages 26 or older had paid employment, showed data collected in 2009 by the Kennedy Krieger Institute, an institution dedicated to studying brain disorders and developmental disabilities.

"Of those who did not currently have paid employment, 42 percent said they wanted to work but couldn't find work," the study reported. ". Whatever their other reasons for not working, two-thirds said they also feared the workplace would be too challenging for them because of their" autism.

When the planning for the Homestead farm started back in the early 1990s, local sustainable farming was in vogue, said Book-Glynn. But using farming as a tool for autistic adults was then and remains a fairly unique model in the field.

"If you think about that time frame, the farm started not long after the period when people with disabilities were just put into institutions," she said. "There were not a lot of options or creative approaches then and there certainly were no options for people with autism."

In this April 17, 2017, photo, Lloyd Williams, front right, James Holaday, left, Thomas Kroska, back right, and Tony Hunter, back left, plant onions at The Homestead Farm in Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

And although the Homestead isn't the only farm working with autism or otherwise differently abled people, using farming to be therapeutic is still a unique model, she said.

"Not too many other organizations can say, 'Oh, you like being outside? We have the place for you!'" she said. "Or, 'Oh, you have difficulty with noise and people and too much simulation? We have a job for you!' Or, 'You like to finish things beginning to end? We have the perfect thing for you.'"

The farm offering opportunities for the men to excel is just one part of the ecosystem, the other important part is how the men's excitement and pride with their own progress rubs off on all the other employees.

"Honestly, I probably learn more about the intangible qualities of happiness and fulfillment from these men than I teach them," Book-Glynn said. "Thomas, for example, is so positive that he puts my life back into perspective when he greets me. I know he is going to ask me the same question and we have our little moment together and it just reminds me about what is really important in this world. You know here is an individual who struggles with the symptoms of autism and can come in here and smile every day and go out there and work.

"It's like, what the heck am I complaining about?" she continued. "I just need to go out there and work, too."

Ashley Bonnell, an autism associate who works alongside the men, said this job has allowed her to work on herself as she helps the men gain skills for their own independence.

"Each one of these guys is really special to me," she said. "Before I started here, I used to be really passive, but now I can say, 'OK, this is what we are doing,' so they've made me a stronger person."

"That might not seem like a big deal, but it is a big deal to me," she said. "It's priceless."

While that newfound purpose may be priceless on one hand, it is costly on the other. The men are paid through Medicaid and minimal funding from a few vocational programs, Book-Glynn said, but the farming equipment is maintained and restored by hand. Rarely is there money left in the budget for new supplies.

And attracting funding for work with autistic adults can be difficult.

"Children are the focus now," Book-Glynn said. "Research on children is the focus right now. Everything is about funding the children and, gosh, that is wonderful, but don't forget that those kids grow up and they become adults who need a job and want to live their life."

"But that's why we are here," she said. "And that's why will always have the farm."