Every few years, I invite readers and colleagues to contribute guest columns in the series Technology and my Hobby/Passion. Over a hundred contributed in the last decade on their birding, charities, cooking, music, sports and every other passion, and how it keeps evolving with technology.
This time it is Nancy and Jim Richardson who talk about their autistic son Michael and how the joy and challenge of raising him has led them to found Neuro Diverse Living. This nonprofit has focused on creating safe and secure housing, community, and job opportunities for autistic kids after they grow up. As Jim says “Adults with autism and other IDDs, (intellectual and developmental disabilities), is a demographic that is way overlooked. As a nonprofit, our singular mission is to provide safe and sustainable housing to families who are dealing with the very issue we’ve dealt with: What’s going to happen to my child where we’re gone?
As career Fortune 1000 executives and serial entrepreneurs, Jim and Nancy Richardson have created vast network of connections that enable and support their life-long focus of leaving a legacy for their three children and four grandchildren. As active members of the Central Bucks Rotary, they also give back to the community that they have called home for the past 21 years. In their spare time, they love riding their motorcycles, spending time with family and close friends.
Stacey Fish of SAP introduced me to Jim and Nancy. This is what she has to say about them.
“I have known Jim and Nancy for 30 years. I had the fortune of meeting them at work and actually saw their love blossom, attended their wedding, and have just been remarkably close friends for 30 years. In that time frame, I had the pleasure of watching them raise Michael along with the struggles of raising an autistic child. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to babysit several times. I was there when Jim had serious back surgery and stayed with Michael so Nancy could take care of Jim. Again, hands-on, real-time seeing the struggles they were dealing with.
Although we don’t live close to one another, we never lost touch and reconnect every time we see each other without skipping a beat. I’ve always stayed in touch, always wanted to learn what they’re doing with Michael in as much that they pushed the boundaries of research and doing what’s best for him and being his advocate. I’m blessed to not have the struggles they do with schools and activities of daily living raising an autistic child. But watching and learning what they have had to overcome and do things on their own has been inspirational. When I heard about then building a nonprofit to address the lifetime needs of autistic adults for those like their now-grown son, I was immediately and passionate about helping them.”
Here are notes from my conversation with Nancy and Jim
“Michael has so many skills. He’s got empathy and compassion for others that have just really shone through in his development over the years. We are just so thrilled to see his future unfold, which is why we developed Neuro Diverse Living as there are literally no options for these young individuals – a place for them to live, thrive, and develop as great contributors to a community and be in safe hands.
In the right environment, Michael can live independently but is not a great self-advocate and like many with autism, are vulnerable in ways that their neurotypical peers are not. This is a primary driver behind our goal of providing safe and sustainable housing for Michael and felt that if we could solve this for Michael, we could solve it for other families in the same situation. We see technology as an enabler to make independent living more successful.
We’re taking this to the next level where not only can these individuals work at companies like SAP and around the state, but where can they live? They truly can grow as independent contributors to society. This is the component that we’re focused on is helping these individuals, these unique, beautiful individuals live a happy and successful life.”
Jim describes how technologies keep improving to support autistic kids as they grow older. “Although Michael is my stepson, I’ve raised him since he was two. I got to see, from the very beginning, the challenges that parents with an autistic child face. Getting a diagnosis of autism for your child changes everything about your life and you’re pretty much on your own trying to figure things out.
We have always been “take charge” people and knew we had to take matters into our own hands. There wasn’t a lot known about autism 20 years ago. Diagnosis and early treatments have gotten much better. Michael is brilliant in his own way but has challenges interacting with others. He’s come a long way from social isolation to a point where he has blossomed into a kind and caring human being. I believe that individuals with intellectual disabilities like autism have unique gifts. I think it’s up to the family to find those gifts and pull them out.
The biggest fear for a parent with a special needs’ child is safety. We live in a world where people don’t always have the best intentions and sadly prey on those that can be taken advantage of. Certainly, Michael falls into that category. As we think about not only about how to ensure he is safe for the rest of his life, change is one of the things that really is not good for someone with autism. We’ve also decided the other issue we need to tackle is employment, because these ‘kids’ can be productive members of society if given the opportunity. From a technology standpoint, a lot has changed in 26 years since Michael was initially diagnosed. Tools like smartphones that can help them communicate and interact in social environments.
From a housing standpoint, having cameras, motion sensors, and instead of physical keys, having electronic key cards or devices so they can get in and out while ensuring people who shouldn’t be in the home can’t get in. The amount of technology that’s available today is incredible. There are also technologies that will help autistic individuals who struggle with sound and bright light. I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how we can introduce technology to ease the transition from life at home to a life with others who have similar traits and characteristics. We are laser-focused on tackling this challenge head-on. How we accommodate each individual’s uniqueness, their idiosyncrasies, their quirkiness, and certainly the issues that they deal with and struggle with on a daily basis is imperative.
Many with autism are non-verbal or they’re not great communicators. Imagine having touchscreen technology as a way to communicate with the caregiver to take control of their day. And there’s a benefit for the parent in the family home to be able to check-in and communicate with their son or daughter from a technology standpoint provides a sense of safety and comfort. There’s also immersive technology. One of the things we’ve been looking at is Google Glass, a technology that can help people who don’t have the level of empathy. Using technology like Google Glass to sense a person’s facial expression – if they’re happy, they’re sad, they’re angry, helps from a social interaction standpoint – an immersive reality.
It’s incumbent upon us to figure out the appropriate technology that’s going to work for Michael, as well as what’s going to work for Sally, Timmy, or Tommy, and then incorporate that in our personal care homes. There are systems available today that would allow the parent or family members of the resident to let us know in advance that they’re stopping by or planning a visit. There are massive regulations about how the ‘Smart Care Home’ needs to be run and managed, along with the records that we need to keep. Years ago, all those records were maintained manually, but now we can maintain them through systems. It will keep our level of compliance up to date so that when the state does pay an unplanned inspection, our systems and reporting are available so that we can stay in compliance. This also provides additional comfort for the parents as they consider having their son or daughter live in one of our community homes.
We also think that being a nonprofit will allow us to take advantage of leading-edge programs and new technologies and incorporate them into our homes. We’re making great strides and are very excited about opening up our first Neuro Diverse home this year here in Bucks County, PA. As a nonprofit, we will share our model so that others throughout the region, and hopefully, throughout the country can do something similar. The autism tsunami is here and it’s only going to get more pervasive. The government is not going to figure this out, so it’s up to parents like us and great friends like Stacey to make a lasting impact.” I encourage everyone to donate to the Neuro Diverse Living center here
Our special thanks to Vinnie Mirchandani for his time and willingness to capture and tell our story in a compelling manner. We also want to thank Stacey Fish for her enduring friendship and love.