NEWARK, NJ — For adults with autism and intellectual disabilities in Newark, the outlook for independent living became a little brighter on Wednesday at the groundbreaking of the city’s first-ever supported group home. 

The North Ward Center, a Newark-based nonprofit community development organization that supports individuals with autism, welcomed families of individuals with special needs, disability advocates, state legislators and city leaders to the Clifton Avenue site of HOPE House, which will be the permanent home of four individuals with autism beginning July 2020. The individuals will be supported 24/7 by two on-site staff to assist them with daily living and transportation. 

North Ward Center CEO Michele Adubato said that in a society where prejudice deeply affects the creation of resources available to individuals with special needs, the event is a significant milestone for her organization and the individuals it supports. 

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“This is a place where our adult children can live in dignity, security and be included in their community life. Today is truly a groundbreaking moment, and this home has been a labor of love,” Adubato said. 

Guardians of individuals with special needs are faced with myriad anxieties when their children graduate from the public school system at 21. Often met with limited options in underserved areas like Newark, many families are forced to send their loved ones with disabilities far away from home in order to secure a stable, independent future for them. 

True to its name, the development of HOPE House provides a more positive vision for Newark residents with special needs as they transition to adulthood. 

“As a parent of a child with special needs, you don’t worry about retirement or your nest egg. You worry about what’s going to happen when you can no longer take care of your child,” said Olga Lockett, a parent of a child with autism and Newark resident. “Having a group home opening in this neighborhood, and the way it perfectly blends in with the neighborhood, it’s amazing. It’s a family atmosphere, and I hope that it expands.”

Providing supported housing for adults with special needs is a statewide issue that is exacerbated in urban communities, according to Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey. Conservative estimates say the prevalence of autism in New Jersey is 1 in 34, and half of them also have intellectual disabilities. 

“We have 2,200 adults with autism and intellectual disabilities who are in need of housing and residential services in Newark alone,” Buchanan added. “The need is massive, and it’s growing.”

Providing community-based supports and ensuring individuals with special needs are an active part of the community at large is an additional challenge for families and support service providers. In the past, individuals with intellectual and developmental challenges were typically segregated from society in developmental centers and institutions. 

Adubato said that it’s essential for communities to appreciate neurodiversity in a way that not only accepts but respects the differences that individuals with autism and other disabilities face. 

“We have a poor history in this country, and really across the globe, of how we treat differences,” she said. “The key is to have the right services and for ‘neurotypical’ people to be more comfortable with those differences.”