To say Kathryn Marshall and Stephanie Welter are filling a need with their new service for young adults with autism would be the ultimate understatement.
With 1 in 48 kids in Minnesota diagnosed on the autism spectrum today, the community affected by autism is growing exponentially each year, so much so, Welter says, that “even since we started down this road 20 years ago, there are so many more resources than there once were: You can speak about the spectrum and most people at least have an idea of what you are talking about.” That said, most of the focus has been on youth care, but what happens as the influx of people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the ’90s and beyond ages out of existing programs?
Marshall, a corporate attorney, and Welter, a former radio personality and past Mrs. Minnesota International, opened the doors of Ultimate Sustainability (US) just last October, and already are at capacity for the first Shakopee-based program—with plans to open centers in various communities around the metro. They currently serve several families from the Lake Minnetonka area.
The initial impetus is their children—each has a son who was diagnosed around age 2 with ASD, and each has served on a variety of political and nonprofit foundations and boards to increase awareness, improve resources and generate accessibility.
“You blink, and they’re approaching their 20s,” Marshall says. “The need for care past age 20 is just so great,” with some waiting lists at 18 to 24 months, and programs that fall down where US’s focus picks up: Maintaining a 2:1 or 1:1 care ratio, keeping like age groups together, social interactions, and job and life skills that typically aren’t covered in the cloistered bubbles that many autism-specific or public special education programs provide.
Each day at US starts with a quiet moment, then it’s out into the community for a first activity—maybe exercise or a trip to the library—followed by lunch, then off to the next activity, whether that’s bowling, a company tour or ringing the Salvation Army bell at Cub Foods—anything that helps get them “this is your world” experiences, Marshall says. “Autism doesn’t stop, and neither do we,” she says, noting the program runs 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week, all year round.
Twenty-one-year-old Amy Stenseth has been an acquaintance of Matthew Marshall and Ben Welter for much of her life, also getting diagnosed with ASD at age 2 1/2, then attending the Fraser School and starting a regimen of special education programs, speech and occupational therapies throughout her youth. Attending US with them was a no-brainer for her mom, Sheila. “Amy has never been a morning person,” her mom says, and now she literally bounces out of bed each morning. “The staff at Ultimate Sustainability call her ‘Sunshine,’ because from the moment I drop her off to when I pick her up, she has a huge smile on her face,” Sheila says.