Woman’s Dream of Autism Center Doused by Officials

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With her long-held goal in sight, Courtni Laughlin left Placentia City Hall last July with a new permit to create a nonprofit training center for adults with autism, Down syndrome and similar disorders.

The 23-year-old earned a child-adolescent development degree from Cal State Fullerton, has been working and volunteering with individuals with autism for a decade and even helped establish a special education program in Nairobi, Kenya.

Now she is trying to open the No Limits Learning Center, which would provide life skills to high-functioning adults with such challenges. She signed a lease and has spent $40,000 converting a former mattress showroom into classrooms.

But she has hit a bureaucratic wall. Placentia and the Orange County Fire Authority repeatedly changed requirements, then she couldn’t secure the necessary fire safety permit to open.

“We are at a standstill,” Laughlin said. “I should be in my center teaching my students. This all should have been settled months ago.”

Advocates for individuals with autism noted that government officials don’t understand the challenged young adults, so they make faulty decisions based on inappropriate assessments.

Unfortunately, said parents and advocates, Laughlin’s experience is more common than not. The result is a dearth of such facilities, particularly in regions like northeastern and southern Orange County, officials said.

“I looked at starting a facility,” said Christina Adams, a Laguna Beach advocate-writer with a son with autism, “but I didn’t even try; I thought the system would eat my lunch.”

Ashley C. Robert, a program administrator at Beacon Day School for Students With Autism in La Palma, said she supports good safety standards but adds there is considerable frustration among institutions seeking to help these individuals.

“The process is tedious by nature,” said Robert.

Widespread Need in OC

There are an estimated 30,000 adults in Orange County with some form of autism spectrum disorder, authorities said, and the population is growing as diagnoses improve. As more individuals age out of the school system, many individuals will need additional training to try to live more independently.

There is some help coming from Sacramento. In its most recent session, the Legislature passed two bills to try to improve their employment opportunities.

The measures are designed to move the challenged adults from “making widgets in a sheltered workshop,” as one advocate said, to securing more productive jobs, as is seen at markets and other commercial stores.

But despite the needs, advocates noted, nearly monumental efforts are required to open facilities and overcome varied resistance from communities or governments.

John Palacio provided a perspective from his rich background as a trustee of the Santa Ana Unified School District, a father of an adult son with Down syndrome and a housing advocate in partnership with the Orange County Regional Center, which serves the disabled.

“When governments want something to happen, it occurs,” said Palacio. “But when it doesn’t? Nothing happens.”

Trouble With the Fire Authority

In Laughlin’s case, the Placentia Planning Commission on July 9 approved a conditional use permit for the No Limits facility after staff worked out safety requirements with the Fire Authority, as is typically done.

The approved use permit specifically stated: “No conditions required by the Orange County Fire Authority.”

But in recent weeks, Laughlin said, Fire Authority officials repeatedly refused to issue an added permit needed for a state license. Then the agency classified the center as an institution, which means that Laughlin must pay to install a sprinkler system.

In an Oct. 1 letter, Robert Chang, chief of Placentia’s building department, wrote that the city was suspending Laughlin’s use permit until sprinklers were approved by the Fire Authority, because “it was not possible … to determine if your customers [can] self evacuate in the event of an emergency.”

This baffled No Limits advocates. They said the first 15 students function at high levels, may have completed high school or be in college and will attend only during the day.

A few miles away in Orange, which has its own fire department, the Pyramid Autism Center, a small private school. is not required to have sprinklers, and the student population is much lower-functioning than that of No Limits.

That center is so loved that parents drive from Riverside and San Bernardino counties for day services, notes executive director Stacey Kochanowski.

Last week, Chris Concepcion, the Fire Authority division chief overseeing Placentia, confirmed No Limits must be outfitted with sprinklers. Other such facilities in the agency’s jurisdiction already have sprinklers, he said.

Recently, the Fire Authority and Placentia held a conference call, affirming their united position, he added.

The state fire marshall’s office in Sacramento was consulted, Concepcion said, and “informally” agrees with the Fire Authority, which now is seeking a formal written opinion from the state.

That opinion, which would serve as guidance statewide, actually could compound the difficulties and costs of establishing learning centers in the future.

For instance, Nancy Donnelly, executive director of New Vista School in Laguna Hills for challenged youths, said she is developing an adult learning center.

“There is no safety net, no program out there to help them,” said Donnelly. “We have parents who say their children are sitting at home after completing college, unable to get a job.”

‘Horrific’ Comments From Officials

Advocates and parents say comments by governmental officials show the errors in the planning system.

Laughlin said she was “appalled” by statements of a Placentia building department supervisor, who said her customers were “like those in a mental institution.”

Placentia officials did not respond to interview requests.

And an Fire Authority official made “horrific” comments to Laughlin during a site inspection, said Jodie Bell, who has known Laughlin for seven years and wants to send her 22-year-old son, Cody, there.

The official, Bell said, worried aloud that the students would be nonresponsive in an emergency. “He said: ‘What if they roll up in a ball?’” she said. “I was very disappointed in these inappropriate comments.”

Her son has a form of Down syndrome but is very socially active, including playing several sports through high school.

“The sad part is these inappropriate views of our children don’t go away,” Bell said. “They are prevalent and getting worse.”

As an indication of her desperation, Laughlin and two dozen supporters held a demonstration on Nov. 14 outside Fire Authority headquarters in Irvine. She also is soliciting donations online.

Meanwhile, parents wishing to send their children to No Limits are struggling to stay optimistic.

“The series of events and governmental mishaps are so very, very unfortunate,” said Holly Redman, a registered nurse who hopes to enroll her 23-year-old son, Mychal, who has autism spectrum disorder. “She never would have spent thousands of dollars if she had not gotten the city approval.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that John Palacio’s adult son suffers from autism.

Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at rexdalton@aol.com.

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