The name AACORN stands for Adult Agricultural Community Option for Residential Needs. When AACORN first incorporated as AACORN Farm, Inc., the focus was on building residences where adults with autism could live in community with others. It soon became apparent that the greater immediate need was for these adults to have meaningful work, social interaction, and leisure opportunities during the day. The focus shifted to creating the program, and it was the right decision as many lives have been transformed and enriched through AACORN‘s skill-building program. However, we have never lost sight of our goal to build residences. The idea has evolved to envisioning a community of homes with adults of all ability levels living near each other and knowing their neighbors, sharing garden space and other farm products. The residential planning will begin as it becomes part of AACORN‘s Strategic Plan in 2020.
There are few options for social engagement, skill-building, and meaningful work after aging out of school. Because special education is mandated under federal law, all students must receive a “free and appropriate education”. However, there are no such mandates following graduation and the existing programs do not begin to cover the number of adults needing continued training and support throughout adulthood. Many adults with autism and similar developmental differences have difficulty in large groups and noisy environments. If they try a program and experience sensory overload, the alternative is usually to isolate themselves at home with little to do. AACORN offers a quiet rural atmosphere, which allows participants to spread out and work at their own pace. AACORN offers a wide range of meaningful activities that bring purpose and build confidence as new skills are learned.
AACORN participants who come with social anxiety grow to tolerate and even enjoy working and engaging in leisurely activities alongside others. It is satisfying to see adults who are characterized by having difficulty with social interactions, who often lack friends, begin to open up and form bonds with other participants and staff. But ‘building community’ does not stop there. Activities like tying blankets, washing produce, and packing eggs are activities that help participants to give back to the larger community. AACORN has taken groups to restaurants to donate herbs and to the YWCA to donate blankets and eggs that assist people in need. By taking part in active giving, participants who are typically very self-focused learn to also focus on others. Outings into the community are now enjoyed by everyone.