NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — A first-of-its-kind center for adults with autism is slated to take root on Douglass Campus, where the closed Corwin houses now stand, according to a Rutgers University official.
Frank Wong, the school’s executive director of facilities, planning and development, introduced general plans for the Adult Autism Center at the New Brunswick Planning Board meeting.
“It’s hoped that this will become the model for other universities,” Wong said of the project.
The first of the development’s two phases would result in a 12,500-square-foot, one-story building to be used by a program that provides vocational training for adults with autism, Wong said. That structure would include a large meeting area, staff offices and support space, he said.
Rutgers hopes for the facility to begin serving 50 to 60 individuals by late 2018, he said.
The second phase would usher in the construction of a neighboring residence hall that would house 20 adults with autism and graduate students who serve as mentors, Wong said. While those plans aren’t yet concrete, the building could house two-, three- and four-bedroom suites, he said.
The project would take up an area off Nichol Avenue, between Recreation Park and Dudley Road. It would encompass two “horseshoe” streets near the old Corwin dorms at Douglass College, the Little Theater and the Corwin Lodge. It’s also near a treatment plant owned by the New Brunswick Water Utility.
For years, the residential Corwin homes have been shuttered, with boards on their windows, Wong said. Demolition could begin later this year, depending on funding—though the Little Theater and the Corwin Lodge will remain.
“This project will actually clean up what has become a rather derelict area,” he added, “and is an improvement to the neighborhood and to the campus.”
But perhaps the most striking attribute of the endeavor is what it could do for people with autism in New Jersey and beyond.
As many as one in every 41 children in the state fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, according to the advocacy group Autism New Jersey. Nationally, the prevalence rate is one in 68, according to the organization.
Schools typically provide many services to individuals with autism until they turn 21, when they age out of the system, according to experts. Roughly 500,000 people with autism are expected to transition to adulthood over the next decade, Wong said.
Rutgers’ coming autism center is meant to help those adults get training and ultimately work jobs around campus, Wong said. That could include arranging books, sorting mail or working in dining halls, he said.
Graduate psychology students, meanwhile, would receive college credits for helping these clients work and navigate the bus system. Eventually, when the residence hall opens, grad students might also help adults with autism live there independently, Wong said.
In the early stages of the project, the day center would mostly serve as a home base for adults with autism, who would be dropped off there in the morning and picked up from that point after work, Wong said. They would spend their workdays across Rutgers.
When the residence hall goes up, the day center—with a kitchen, living room and game area—would “become sort of an extension of their living environment,” Wong noted.
“I think it’s a wonderful project, certainly,” Planning Board member John Petrolino said.
Rutgers officials have visited projects designed for people with autism on other campuses, but they have yet to find any arrangement that matches the scope of this one, Wong said.
“We believe it will be the first of its kind,” he said.
Rutgers came before the Planning Board only to present the project in terms of how it jibes with the master plan. The university didn’t offer up a full site plan.
For its part, the board recommended that the proposal does indeed align with the master plans of the city and Rutgers.