With Adulthood on the Horizon – Parents of Children With Autism Prepare Non-Profit To Help Adults With Autism Live Well

Parents in Okaloosa County are spearheading the Ground Up Project, a non-profit initiative aimed at building a specialized facility for adults with Autism. This project seeks to provide full-time assistance and a centralized hub for services, addressing the lifelong needs of individuals on the Autism spectrum."

In Brief:

  • Parents Lisa Pitell, Eric Hambright, and Brittany Lynch, whose children have Autism, initiated the Ground Up Project to create a facility in central Okaloosa County for adults with Autism, providing full-time assistance and a centralized hub for services.

  • The project aims to address the challenges faced by adults with Autism as they age out of the system, offering housing and support tailored to their needs, including specialized care and community integration.

  • Fundraising efforts, such as the upcoming 5K race on June 29 at 7 AM on White Point Road in Bluewater Bay, are underway to support the development of the facility and make a meaningful impact in the Autism community.

Lisa Pitell, Eric Hambright, and Brittany Lynch all have something in common. Their children have Autism, which is severe enough in its symptoms to mean that their children will never live alone. 


All of their children are under 18 – but they realize they will not always be here to watch out for them. 


Their three separate children all have the disorder, which impacts their nervous system, but it affects them in different ways. People with high-functioning and low-functioning autism, according to Autism Parenting Magazine, “Is behavioral. Low functioning autism causes behaviors that inhibit the ability to conduct daily life. Children with high functioning autism have similar abilities to his/her neurotypical peer. This is especially true when the child receives early interventional therapies. Children diagnosed with low functioning autism need more support. They struggle to communicate and manage their behaviors.”


Lynch’s child can speak, but does not have the level of cognition that an average 13-year-old has. Hambright’s son is non-verbal but can use an iPhone to communicate with others. Pitell’s son tends to fixate on certain things and is of a developmental age that is younger than his chronological age. 


Some people like Pitell and Lynch happened to live here when their sons got their diagnosis. Others, like Hambright, had to pick up their whole lives and move here. “We know another family that picked up their life and moved from Louisiana,” Pitell said, “We have eight families that came from Pensacola.”


RELATED: Emerald Coast Learning Center Opens Its Doors, Paving the Way for Specialized Education and Job Opportunities. 


For children with Autism, the Emerald Coast may be one of the best places on earth to live. The Emerald Coast Autism Center has one of the best facilities in the United States to help those kids manage their symptoms and become the best versions of themselves. 


Numbers vary from authority to authority, but somewhere in the range of one in 36 (according to the National Autism Association) to one in 44 (autismsociety.org), children born in America today have the disorder. 


But after they age out of the system, the children who have more severe difficulties do not have as many resources – just like in the rest of the country. 


It’s a stark reality that many parents must face—and prepare for. This reality led Pitell, Hambright, and Lynch to start the Ground Up Project. The non-profit wants to build a facility in central Okaloosa County that would provide full-time assistance for adults with Autism and a centralized hub for services that would support people on all parts of the spectrum and their families. 


RELATED: Emerald Coast Autism Center Announces Fundraisers for Scholarships


“We’re going to have a community hub within the facility,” Pitell added. She envisions a commercial-grade kitchen that can provide meals for the residents – and for people in the larger Autism community during gatherings. She sees a movie room and a place to do yoga or on-site physical therapy for people with those needs. She also wants to give the children they have now the chance to stay with the friends that they have made as they enter adulthood. She says, “There are some options for group homes for those who need it, but we want to put it all together. Right now, [Lynch’s] son and my son are friends. So, one day, I don’t want to be like, ‘oh, they have different needs. So, [Lynch’s] son is gonna go all the way over to a group home, and my mine is going to go all the way over to this group home.’ Even though they may have different needs, let’s build a place where they can stay together, even though they need different things.”


PREVIOUSLY: Internationally Famous Tenor and Trumpeter, Emerald Coast Autism Center Parents, To Play for ‘Sounds of the Spectrum’ Concert


The Balancing Act

The team at The Ground Up Project will have to overcome plenty of hurdles. Everything from cost to building regulations to the community’s needs limits their dreams in a tiny way or another but gives them a little clearer picture of what they must do to make their dream a reality. 


The hurdles are also actual hurdles – and as people who’ve never run this race before, they will clip a couple as they run down the track. 


According to The Ground Up Project, they had a full plan for how the facility would look. They had toured multiple facilities and determined what would and wouldn’t work for their clientele, down to whether or not they would have shared rooms and bathrooms (they wouldn’t, due to the needs of the adults they’d serve). All told, they spent 18 months on the plan. 


They soon learned from a consultant who’d created several facilities like this before – their plan would need to be revised. They had yet to see the regulation that required any group facility like this to have at least ten acres of land. 


It was a hard lesson to learn, but it was back to the drawing board. “So, we got all of the things we didn’t know – all of the things we didn’t know we didn’t know and the things we needed to know,” Pitell added about the consultant, “So now we’re at this point where we feel like we totally need to re-evaluate. ‘What are the most important parts of our project – of our vision – for this facility? What are we willing to concede? And what are we absolutely not.'”


The Dream 

Ultimately, the non-profit’s goal is to start with a facility that will provide housing for 50 people on the more debilitating side of the Autism spectrum – with the hope they will build enough units to provide homes for 150 people. 


They also hope to build facilities to make it a hub for other people in the Autism community to gather and grow. That means creating the industrial kitchen they mentioned and the exercise and gathering facilities. 


They also know they need the facility to be in a more urban portion of the county – because of the medical and personal needs of the clients who will be served there.


That also means having a long-term plan to accommodate the balance of the people with Autism in the community who will need these services. According to the National Institutes of Health, people with Autism are more likely to die before the national life expectancy. Another study by University College London shows that the life expectancy for men (71.7) and women (69.6) with Autism and a learning disability were less than for men (80) and women (83) without Autism.  


All told, while they may have shorter lifespans than adults without Autism – they still live long lives after their 18th birthday, when they would be eligible for a place in this community – more than 50 years. 


This requires planning for the non-profit, who says it’s one of their toughest nuts to crack. Indeed, even what they will need to provide to a senior resident with Autism will be different than what they provide to an 18-year-old in the same situation. “An 80-year-old with Autism’s needs are going to be different,” Hambright said, “They can’t be in a group home with a resident that is 30. They’re going to need special care,” Hambright said, “That’s not in the first stage [of the project], because we need to get this [off the ground].”


Ribbon Cutting 

The non-profit has set a goal for itself—it wants to open the first portion of the facility by 2031. But they need to start now if they wish their own children m the facility. 


After all, they say that every facility similar to the one they want to build already has an eight- or nine-year wait list to get in. 


They face an uphill battle. “It’s a lot easier to raise money for children,” Brittany Lynch said wryly. But Lynch, who has five years until her son turns 18, also remembers why the mission is so vital for the adults with Autism who needed this building to be up and running yesterday. She thinks about how the Emerald Coast Autism Center started. “It was in a very small building. It was our saving grace. I know that [the] people [who] came before us, they didn’t have anything [like ECAC],” she said, “we still get people come to us and say [ECAC], ‘Well, my child is an adult, I know they’re not going to be able to benefit from what you’re doing. But I want to support you because I wish I wish we had this option.’ And so just knowing that, that there are people that can benefit besides us. It’s it’s like a whole new world. Really.”

Opportunities in the Near Term to Help

The Ground Up Project will soon hold several fundraisers. The first-ever 5K race will occur on June 29 at 7 AM on White Point Road in Bluewater Bay. 


You can follow the group’s Facebook Page for more updates. 

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