Island Autism Group will have a new forever home

Farm in West Tisbury will serve as a hub for support services of all kinds.

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The 17.5-acre farm in West Tisbury will serve as Island Autism Groups new Island Autism Center. - Kyra Steck

Island Autism Group (IAG) is another step closer to providing long-term housing and a comprehensive support hub for those with autism on Martha’s Vineyard.

Three benevolent organizations on-Island, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, the Island Housing Trust (IHT), and IAG, are working together to acquire 17. 5 acres on Lambert’s Cove Road where the Island Autism Center will serve as the headquarters for all autism support services on Martha’s Vineyard.

The property was owned by the Child family for decades, before it was bought by the Land Bank in 1998 with an agricultural preservation restriction. In this program, an area of land is set aside that can be developed, and any space outside that land must be used for agricultural purposes. Land Bank executive director James Lengyel said IAG came to the Land Bank and IHT to be partners. Now, an agreement has been reached where the Land Bank will purchase 10 acres of the property and treat it as conservation land, while IHT will buy 7.5 acres and develop housing for adults with autism and staff. 

IAG will be entering into a ground lease in perpetuity with the Land Bank and IHT for the property. 

Executive director of IHT Philippe Jordi said IHT often partners with nonprofits on the Island to lend their expertise in real estate and land stewardship, and were happy to do so in this instance. “We are a community land trust, and a tool for perpetual affordability,” Jordi said. “We are really excited about creating new partnerships.”

Jordi said IHT will be reaching out to neighbors in order to have informational meetings and receive direct input on the project. 

Co-founder of IAG Kate DeVane said that she wants to create a place where her 15-year-old nonverbal son with autism, and all others with autism on Martha’s Vineyard, can go year-round to experience the same joys in life that typically functioning Islanders experience. 

When DeVane’s son was 2 years old, he was in Project Headway, a preschool program that consists of an inclusive mix of children with autism and typical children. As her son got older, he entered the Bridge Program provided by the Island school district. While DeVane said these programs exemplify the importance of an autism support network for children and young adults on the autism spectrum, she also said it highlights the need for one all-encompassing organization, with a physical space.

DeVane envisions this center as a place where not only kids and adults with autism will want to spend their time, but also anyone else who is interested. For the past five years, IAG has been running afterschool programs and summer programs to fill in the spaces where the Island school systems can’t provide service. But DeVane said now is the time to create a centralized hub where those services are always available. Conventionally, IAG would use the YMCA building, Misty Meadows, or the Edgartown library for afterschool programs, and while DeVane said she is grateful to those organizations for their support, IAG needs its own space. 

As typically functioning children grow up, DeVane said, they might take some of their childhood interests and experiences and work toward a career with those interests in mind. She wants to provide the same opportunities to those with autism on-Island.

But to accomplish this massive undertaking, DeVane said, she wanted to reach out to the Land Bank and IHT to utilize their expertise.

“When we found out this particular farm was available, I got really excited, but then I thought, ‘We can’t do this on our own,’” DeVane said. “It’s too big of a fundraising chunk to bite off on our own.”

DeVane said she and other parents of children with autism often worry about their kids not being able to receive the community resources necessary to live rich and fulfilling lives. 

This Island Autism Center will provide a place for both adults and children with autism to “get everything they want out of life,” DeVane said.

The vision for the center includes farm animals, cooking classes, and all sorts of room for extracurricular activities. As the center develops, there will also be opportunities for job training, where those on the spectrum can follow their passions into a meaningful career.

DeVane said there is currently no assisted living or full-time housing for those with autism, and because of this, many kids who age out of the existing programs have to head off-Island to receive support.

But she is hoping to change that, and bring Islanders with autism back home to be closer to their family and friends. 

“Marcy Bettencourt, whose son is 15, my son who is 15, and Kim Leaird’s son who is 15, all those kids have to go off-Island at some point. We want to create a situation where adults can live on the farm and receive varying levels of care,” DeVane said.

According to DeVane, those with autism function at different degrees, and the Island Autism Center will seek to accommodate all of them.

“If you get up in the morning and you are solid and can do things on your own, maybe you will get up and feed the goats and collect eggs from the chickens, then go meet up with your job trainer,” DeVane said. “Some people like my son, who might need more supervision, could go do some yoga, and then go goatscaping with the Land Bank.”

The whole idea of the farm is to provide fun and enriching experiences for everyone with autism on-Island, and even those without. “You have the whole slew of activities going on, and we are hoping it will be such a cool place that typically functioning people will come and hang out and be a part of the fun,” DeVane said. “We are not trying to be a closed-door community, we want to invite the entire community.”

The idea for the center came from Island institutions like Chilmark Chocolates (now closed) where those with developmental disabilities work closely with those without disabilities, and create a tight-knit community of support and compassion.

“How can we make this a community that is built entirely around mutual respect for everyone?” DeVane asked.

DeVane said she hopes people on Martha’s Vineyard will see the necessity for a centralized support hub for those with autism, especially now that many existing services are restricted because of the pandemic. 

“For people with autism and their families, it is an incredibly hard time. If there is something like this in place, it will change the entire dynamic,” DeVane said. “We are really looking to create a place where everyone wants to be.”