NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On Wednesday November 4, Rutgers University announced plans to open a "first-of-its-kind" on-campus center that will support adults with autism.
According to a Rutgers news release, the unique facilities will encourage autistic adults to live and work independently in a university setting.
Mel Karmazin, the former CEO of Viacom, CBS, and Sirius XM Radio, is working closely with the Rutgers University Foundation as well as the director of development of GSAPP, Mary Chrow, to raise money for new buildings to house the center.
"There's nothing like this program that Rutgers is doing anywhere in the United States," said Karmazin in an interview on CNBC.
Karmazin said he is leading the private fundraising project, along with his daughter Dina Karmazin, whose son was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
The school hopes to raise $35 million to build permanent housing and provide jobs for adults with autism.
The Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services (RCAAS) will be divided into two buildings, both of which will be located on Douglass Campus in New Brunswick.
"We have raised half of [the funding for] the first building already," Karmazin told CNBC.
Rutgers' Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (GSAPP), and its affiliate the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center (DDDC), located on Douglass campus, are working to launch the project.
Currently, the DDDC mainly serves children on the autism spectrum, so the opportunity to serve adults is being welcomed by staff .
According to GSAPP Dean Dr. Stanley Messer, “The DDDC has a strong history of working on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). The founder of the DDDC, Sandra Harris, is still the Executive Director of the program and led groundbreaking research with ABA.”
According to the DDDC website, Harris has been working with people on the autism spectrum for over 40 years.
The DDDC also provides services for college students that are on the high end of the spectrum, meaning they have Aspergers syndrome.
The first part of the center will offer 60 off-campus adults with autism university jobs and the support of clinical staff and graduate students.
The other part of the center is slated to be a pilot residential program for 20 adults with autism who will work on campus and live alongside Rutgers graduate students in an integrated apartment-style residence.
The buildings are set to open in fall 2018, according to Rutgers.
According to Messer, “Rutgers has donated the land and now a private campaign must raise about $35 million dollars to provide the buildings.”
The logistics of the program are still in the works. However, it will most likely serve adults in the "middle" of the autism spectrum, according to Messer.
Some of the participants will be financially supported by the state government, while others will have their participation privately funded.
The twenty adults that will live in the integrated apartment style housing will be amongst, “any graduate students that express interest,” said Messer, indicating the housing opportunity might not be limited to GSAPP graduate students.
Ultimately the goal of the project is, “to create a natural home for autistic adults and see them live to their full potential” said Messer.
Currently, many employers are put off by hiring autistic adults, despite their capabilities, because they lack normalized social skills.
“The university setting tends to be much more tolerant when hiring adults with disabilities,” said Messer. “Rutgers University has many departments that would benefit from autistic adults’ skills ranging from the IT department to the on-campus farm.”
Because of its many communal resources like the gyms and other recreational facilities, the Rutgers experience can help autistic people feel part of larger community.
According to Messer, Jacquelyn Litt, the Dean of Douglass Residential College is excited to work with GSAPP to build such a community.
Some people, including commenters on an article about the new project published by The Mighty, have expressed concern that it will exploit the autistic adults who will be observed during the course of the program.
Messer downplayed the concerns, saying, “Some people will always see psychological research like this as exploitation."
"However, it’s only through research that we can advance and help people reach their full potential.”