Gary Pappacena is a ‘fix it’ guy. From the lawn mower to the weed eater — he gets everything running. Gary is one of dozens of people with autism who live in houses managed by Balance Autism.

“They just want to be treated like everyone else,” said Dr. Scott Atwood. He’s the Vice President of Adult Services and he brings a unique perspective to the job.

“My mom had every disease for which there was a walk or a bike ride or a run,” he explained. “MS, diabetes, breast cancer, lung cancer…from the time I was nine I was the primary care giver for my mom.” He’s been working with adults with disabilities for more than 30 years.

The four guys who live here each have specific jobs around the house. Cleaning the bathroom, doing dishes, vacuuming and taking out the trash. Gary knows he has to keep up with his chores if he wants to get a dog.

“Tell Erin why you want a dog,” Scott said.

“Because I get angry sometimes and it helps me calm down,” Gary explained.

Gary gets to spend time with a therapy dog during his job at Child Serve in Johnston. Job training is another service Balance Autism provides.

“There’s a whole bunch of different skill levels that come with that,” Dr. Atwood explained. “It’s our job to match the skill set of the individual to the skill set of the job.”

Medicaid covers all of these things…housing, job training, therapy, medical care…supports some people with autism may need their entire lives.

“The investment there is keeping people in their homes and communities so they can live the life they wish,” said Marissa Eyanson, state director of Mental Health and Disability Services.

“Ultimately they’re trying to achieve the things that they wish to achieve; the job they want to have, the family and friends they want to have, the place they want to live.”

Like Dr. Atwood, Eyanson works in this space because of personal experience.

“That was my very first job, in service for people with intellectual disabilities who lived in that home,” she explained.

One of her missions now is to keep people out of institutions if at all possible.

“The goal of Supported Community Living, or SCL, is people are going to live in homes and they’re going to have neighbors, they are part of our community, they are just like you and I. So, they’re going to have neighbors and they’re going to have lives and their lives are self-directed,” she said.

Unfortunately, the interactions with some of those neighbors haven’t always been positive.

“The neighborhood started referring to our people in very derogatory terms…the dogs are out again, or they need to catch them, why don’t they just lock them up. Those sorts of comments on this Ring chat function.” Dr. Atwood explained. “It’s heartbreaking – not just for people with neurodiversity but anyone. People just want to be accepted and appreciated.”

That extends to the people who work with adults on the spectrum.

“We need, number one – people, and money. There is no number one, it’s those two things — people and money in order to make this happen,” said Dr. Atwood. “We have a set schedule and 40 percent of those aren’t filled. It is a crisis.”

“Right now in our community there’s a lot of pressure, and that’s related to workforce shortages and also needing to flex services to meet the needs that people are presenting,” Eyanson agreed.

And she adds that this is an issue that affects everyone.

“It absolutely affects everybody because all of us know someone who has needed the support of Medicaid or the Department of Human Services.”

Atwood said his mission is simple.

“I want the adults who receive services from me to feel like an adult,” he said. “We’re talking adult to adult, man to man about work and the dog you want to get and how to fix the lawnmower. That’s what they deserve.”