The local ASD Achievement Center is giving the gift of independence to young adults with autism spectrum disorder
When Paula Breeden’s son Zak was 18 years old, doctors told her Zak needed to be placed in a residential treatment facility because his autism was too severe. He would never function normally in a home environment or ever be independent, they said, but Paula was determined to prove the doctors wrong.
Seven years later, Zak is driving, working, and living on his own, thanks largely to the unflinching devotion of his mother. Now a certified life coach for young adults with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Paula is working diligently to help other young adults achieve the same goals through her nonprofit ASD Achievement Center in Altamonte Springs.
Paula officially launched the ASD Achievement Center two years ago and is already overwhelmed with the positive response she’s received not only from the local community, but worldwide as well. While the majority of her clients are local, Paula has also helped clients from Kansas, West Virginia, and as far away as Hungary.
Paula works only with young adults, ranging from 18 to 35 years of age. The reason is simple: There is a plethora of autism-related resources available to school-aged children, but very little beyond.
“When my son graduated high school, there was nothing. Everything dries up,” says Paula. “While children with ASD are in school, there are programs funded by the Department of Education. However, when they graduate, that funding goes away. They need ongoing support.”
At any given time, Paula coaches 12 to 15 clients through one or more of her four programs. She wrote most of the coaching curriculum herself because there was so little material designed for those over 18. So Paula assessed her clients’ needs and designed programs to meet them.
“A teacher takes information, assimilates it, and turns it into a curriculum, so that’s what I did,” says Paula. “I just had a natural gift for it. I researched, found all I could, and wrote the programs.”
Paula’s four programs each target everyday functions that men and women with ASD may find challenging. The PEERS Program focuses on building a variety of social skills from conversational interactions to dating etiquette. Task Masters highlights executive functions, such as thinking ahead, planning, prioritizing, and connecting present choices with future outcomes. Paula also developed the Career Success Shop, a program that prepares clients for everything they may face in finding a job and thriving in a work environment. The fourth program, Launch Pad, drills down into higher levels of everyday skills such as cooking, driving, paying bills, and making appointments.
“The programs I’ve developed have this in mind: to foster independence and to promote achievement,” says Paula. “You really can achieve so much more when you’re in a supportive environment. The programs we provide are in a supportive environment and come from a coaching perspective. I’m helping them take those steps.”
Although each program is structured toward a specific skill set, each client is invited to set their own goals and priorities. Paula then helps create an action plan and provides accountability by requiring her clients to show proof that they’re doing what they intend.
“Most of my clients enjoy technology,” says Paula, “so I get pictures texted and emailed to me all day long of things they’re doing.”
Paula is currently the only life coach at the ASD Achievement Center, but she’s supported by several volunteers and sees potential for considerable growth. The majority of the center’s funding comes from the Florida Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, but Paula is also seeking more individual donors and community sponsors to help expand her vision and serve more clients.
For now, though, Paula is thrilled at the organic success of the center, as demonstrated by the incredible strides her clients have made.
“They come in here, little by little, step by step, moving closer to their goals,” she says. “That’s the reward for me. Seeing them achieve their goals.”
Join the ASD Achievement Center for its very first fundraiser, Zumba for Autism, on Sunday, July 29, from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. at the Zen Life Center in Winter Springs. Mr. Zumba Fitness, Jon Delancy, a certified gold level Zumba instructor who is also on the autism spectrum, will dance up awareness for autism as all of the proceeds from the event go to the ASD Achievement Center.
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