A former convent gives adults with autism an independent living option in New York
Kristin Thatcher knew she did not want to live in a group home.
Before 2020, the Staten Island native faced a problem that is only growing for households across the country. Educational institutions provide structure and support for children and teens who are on the autism spectrum, but as they transition into adulthood, many of those services are withdrawn. Young adults with autism have few places to turn when they “fall off the cliff,” as some professionals call the abrupt end of services they received as children. This leads many autistic adults to live at home for years with parents who worry for their children as they age.
The most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 36 children comes of age with an autism spectrum disorder in the United States. Yet despite the prevalence of the condition, and the options available for the children and families affected by it, the question of how to assist autistic adults remains a growing challenge, according to advocates, and the subject of ongoing academic research.
Kristin lived in her childhood home into adulthood, and her mother Lynn Thatcher was unsure whether her daughter could live independently and feared for the future.
“From a parent’s perspective, we always worry about what’s going to happen when we’re not here anymore,” Ms. Thatcher said.
“From a parent’s perspective, we always worry about what’s going to happen when we’re not here anymore.”
But in January 2020, Kristin did something she and her mother never thought she would be able to do: She moved out. ArchCare, the Archdiocese of New York’s continuing care initiative, had converted St. Teresa’s, a former convent on Staten Island, into apartments specifically for autistic adults aged 24 to 35.
On March 1, ArchCare broke ground on the program’s second apartment building in Eastchester, New York, at a former convent on the grounds of the Immaculate Conception Church. According to Father Anthony Sorgie, the pastor of the associated parish, the convent hosted the Franciscan Sisters of Hastings-on-Hudson for more than a century before it shuttered.
Donna Maxon, ArchCare’s independent housing managing agent, said the model gives a remarkable amount of autonomy to autistic adults who do not need round-the-clock care.
“Everybody, regardless of your background or your circumstances, desires to live as independently as possible in the most respectful setting as possible,” said Ms. Maxon. “And that’s what I think we create and accomplish with these housing projects.”
The housing effort was borne out of a request by Cardinal Timothy Dolan that ArchCare help put underutilized church property to good use, according to ArchCare C.E.O. Scott LaRue. One of the items on the list was to create housing for high-functioning adults with autism. The convent at St. Teresa’s, which became vacant about a decade ago, was selected as a possible home for this new venture.
The project faced some early challenges, Mr. LaRue said, but ArchCare worked in tandem with the local parish during the planning process.
“Everybody, regardless of your background or your circumstances, desires to live as independently as possible in the most respectful setting as possible.”
“I’m not going to say that initially there wasn’t some pushback in the neighborhood. And that was really due to ignorance,” Mr. LaRue said. “Once we got over those hurdles, and they came to have a better understanding [of the proposed resident population], we mostly moved forward without any opposition.”
The building in Eastchester, like at St. Teresa’s, will house eight to 10 residents as well as a tenant liaison who acts the property manager. Independent living means that residents have complete control over their own apartments—furniture, decorations and day-to-day decisions about meals and bedtimes.
Kristin Thatcher said that these freedoms are exactly what she hoped for but did not imagine she would be able to find while she was researching housing opportunities.
“It’s really fun being able to live on my own, make my own choices, making sure my apartment is nice and clean and doing all the adult things,” she said.
The residents all have “similar levels of intellect,” Ms. Maxon said, and as part of the application process, prospective residents are evaluated by a behavior analyst to judge their abilities to live alone safely.
Another part of the effort to empower and enable residents is “a very active tenant council,” according to Ms. Maxon, which decides on group activities in common spaces. Residents are encouraged to join different clubs and pursue their interests together.
Ultimately, what makes the ArchCare model work is the network of communication among the families of residents.
Ultimately, what makes the ArchCare model work is the network of communication among the families of residents. Kristin and her mom know the other members of the community extremely well—including Vincent Mazzone, another St. Teresa’s resident since 2020, and his mother Millie Mazzone.
Ms. Mazzone explained that before Vincent moved to his apartment, she felt that she would always need to be close at hand in case anything happened. But in the three years since Vincent moved, Ms. Mazzone has learned to rely on the other St. Teresa’s families.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of the kids’ siblings and their parents. We do favors for each other,” she said. “It’s nice to know you can count on more than just your family.”
That kind of relationship does require a small, tight-knit group and combined with the limited size of the convent buildings, ArchCare cannot accept more than a handful of the applications that come in. Ms. Maxon said she received over 60 applications for fewer than 10 apartments in the new building in Eastchester.
She said that the need for this kind of housing far outpaces what the archdiocese is able to provide and that for many adults with autism, this level of independence would be impossible.
“One size does not fit all,” Ms. Maxon said. “This model does not work well for everyone.”
But it works well for Vincent. After more than three years in the program—two of which passed under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic—-he continues to thrive at St. Teresa’s. His mother called the project a “godsend.”
“From the time Vincent was diagnosed, I kept wondering, ‘How long will I be here for him?’ But I have to tell you, I no longer worry about that,” Ms. Mazzone said.
Lynn Thatcher echoed the sentiment in her well-wishes for the tenants who will move into the new apartments in Eastchester.
“If they can experience even half of what we have, their lives will be made completely whole,” she said.
Correction, June 19, 2023: A previous version of this article inaccurately reported that ArchCare created a "supportive" housing model; residents are fully independent. Further, the tenant liaison manages the property rather than providing support to tenants.