A Nationwide Conversation
More than 1,000 people in 16 cities came together to set an agenda for addressing the service needs for adults with autism. The passion and commitment of participants were just as remarkable as the technology’s effectiveness in simultaneously connecting people across the country for a day of deliberation and collaborative problem solving.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism affects 1 in 110 children. These children will soon become adults and will need support. Yet there has never been a national agenda put forward to advocate for these individuals.
The Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism (AFAA) National Town Meeting was convened by a diverse consortium of national advocacy organizations concerned about creating a policy agenda to better serve the needs of adults with autism. Utilizing AmericaSpeaks’ highly interactive 21st Century Town Meeting® model, adults with autism, family members, advocates, elected officials, service providers and other community members shared their perspectives with others located across the country.
Participants spent the day developing a national policy agenda to address the unique needs of adults living with autism. The result was a set of prioritized strategies for tackling key issues and services for adults with autism, such as housing, employment and community life. Opportunities for action on the local level were also identified, and participants formed connections during the Town Meeting to support this important work.
The Issue: Growing Need for Adult Services
When people with autism transition from childhood to adulthood, it places them and their families in financial, programmatic, and personal limbo in a society without adequate resources to meet their needs. Because autism is a lifelong disorder, and there is no cure, it is imperative that infrastructure be developed to support individuals with autism as they age.
The prevalence of autism has significantly increased during the past 10 years, resulting in an estimated 1.5 million individuals in the U.S., and tens of millions worldwide affected. Today autism is more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric HIV/AIDS combined. With the increase in prevalence has come an increased demand for effective services for adolescents and adults with autism. Unfortunately, the need continues to far exceed the available resources.
To grapple with these pressing issues, the Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, the National Town Meeting was convened by a consortium of national advocacy organizations for families living with autism, adults with autism, advocates, elected officials, service providers and other community members. AmericaSpeaks worked with AFAA to design and host a 21st Century Town Meeting®, featuring a central site in Chicago and webcast live to fifteen participating cities. Seventeen additional cities participated through virtual discussion tables.
Organizers of the National Town Meeting made every effort to ensure that participants reflected the many different types of stakeholders who are impacted by autism and autism-related policies. Ten percent of participants were adults living with autism while forty percent were family members and the remaining fifty percent were service providers, policy makers, employers, housing specialists and community members.
Whether they participated in Chicago, at one of the webcast sites or at the virtual tables, everyone took part equally in the national discussion. All participants were an active part of facilitated, small-group discussions. They all submitted their ideas into computers to be themed, and voted on the issues in real-time with the rest of the sites across the country.
Over the course of the day-long meeting, participants learned about the issues and deliberated about various policy options for addressing different challenges. Facilitators at each site and online worked with participants to help them listen to and learn from one another. As small groups came to consensus they submitted their ideas to a “theme team” to identify areas of convergence among the national group. Polling keypads then enabled participants to identify collective priorities.
AFAA Town Meeting participants discussed plans for staying engaged in their communities and are devoted to advancing the futures of adults living with autism. Nine out of ten participants committed to staying involved in the process, and each satellite site identified actions to take on a local level. Autism efforts have been fragmented across the country, but this Town Meeting allowed stakeholders to come together not just for the day but to connect organizations and individuals to continue work as a coalition.
Strategies for Implementation
By the end of the National Town Meeting, over a thousand people had come together and successfully prioritized eight strategies in the areas of funding, staffing, housing, employment, training and community-life. They also had experienced thousands of practical ideas on how to begin implementation of this nation-wide agenda. Most significantly, participants were able to see themselves as a large action-oriented community. After the Town Meeting they had new strategies and energy to begin educating and transforming how to include adults with autism into society in a more constructive and beneficial way in the future.
Innovations for Bridging Geography
A National Conversation
The challenge of America’s vast geography was overcome by hosting 16 in-person webcast-connected meetings and 17 virtual tables on the Internet. In real time, all 1,200 participants discussed the same issues, had their ideas considered and reported back as a whole, and each person voted for their priorities.
For who couldn’t attend in person, virtual discussion tables engaged people from their home computer using webcasts, online chats, keypad polling and facilitated national discussions via conference call.
Autism efforts have been fragmented across the country, and this Town Meeting brought stakeholders together, not just for the day, but in an ongoing communication between organizations and individuals who continue work as a coalition.
Nine out of ten participants of the AFAA Town Meeting committed to stay involved in the process, and each meeting site identified actions to take on a local level.