Brighter Futures for Autistic Youths Grown on Chicago Farm

Transitioning from school to the workplace can be incredibly difficult for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Applying lessons from the classroom to the “real world” can be a stretch for anyone, but autistic people in particular benefit from in-situ work experiences where they can develop the requisite social and job skills to gain and succeed in employment. A new program on an urban farm in Chicago does just that – and does it so well that the National Garden Bureau plans to fund therapeutic gardens nationwide. 

Growing Solutions Farm, a 1.2-acre plot on Chicago’s Near West Side grows vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers in addition to job skills and confidence for autistic young adults. The farm teaches every aspect of farming, from planting to harvesting to cooking what they grow to groups of around 20 students aged 18 to 26. While the students learn agriculture-specific skills, they gain a lot more. 

“This is a vocational farm, so we’re teaching job skills,” explains operations manager Gwenne Godwin. “How to work with others, being on time, how to dress, how to do a resume. Those skills translate to any job. We’re using the medium of agriculture to teach here.” 

They also use the garden and kitchen as an opportunity for sensory exploration, a key component to autism therapy. Students are required to taste and smell everything they harvest and cook.

Students also learn to give back to the community, as 75% of their harvest is donated to local food pantries. 

Growing Solutions Farm is part of the Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation’s Urban Autism Solutions program and will be a model for similar programs funded by the National Garden Bureau across the country. With the demand for vocational transition programs for autistic young adults and the growing trend of urban farming, opportunities like this will be sprouting up all over, helping our autistic youths grow a brighter future.

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