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Sowing Self-Esteem: A farm in upstate New York helps people with developmental disabilities cultivate practical skills and confidence.

Hiscott, Rebecca

doi: 10.1097/01.NNN.0000484617.01799.d3
Departments: The Waiting Room

This Way In: A farm in upstate New York helps young adults with autism develop practical life skills.

To learn more about SustainAbility Farm, or to contact Wendy and Gary Kaplan about participating, visit



When Rachel Kaplan was 25, her parents, Wendy and Gary, sat down with her to discuss the possibility of her living on her own. Rachel has autism, and although she can't communicate very well verbally, she's an excellent typist. “We all gathered around the computer and I typed, ‘So, Rachel, would you like to live in an apartment through your self-direction budget [a Medicaid stipend that includes a subsidy for renting an apartment]?'” Wendy Kaplan recalls. “And she typed back, ‘I want to live on a farm.’”

Rachel had spent some time on a farm through a camp she attended, but her parents weren't sure she could handle the hard work required to live on one. “So we said, ‘We'll start a farm here on Long Island [where they lived], and you're going to have to prove to us that you can work at it every day.’”

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That was the start of the SustainAbility Farm project in 2011. The Kaplans obtained permission to farm an acre of the Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, NY, for free as long as they paid the start-up costs. Then they reached out to other people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families through a liaison at the Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities. “People came from all different parts of Long Island and started working this field,” Wendy says.

The Kaplans, who were new to farming, hired a farm manager trained to work with people with disabilities to teach them and their volunteers how to tend to the land and grow produce. They began selling fresh, organic vegetables through New York State's Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, which allows New Yorkers to purchase a “share” of a local farm's harvest each season.

Rachel proved more than willing to work hard, as did many other young people who joined her—volunteers, mostly, as well as students taking community classes in farming, who were charged tuition to participate.

“For many people on the autism spectrum, working in an office or in retail is not going to fly,” says Wendy. “A farm is ideally suited for them. It doesn't require being able to pick up social cues. If you have a day when you want a lot of space, a farm affords you that. And if there's a day when you feel like you want to be with other people, you can do any of the chores that require more than one person to complete.”

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In 2014, a group of families interested in expanding the project formed a limited liability company and bought a 45-acre property in Accord, NY. They leased the property at no cost to SustainAbility Services, the nonprofit founded by the Kaplans to help people with autism and other developmental disabilities with staffing and employment. (SustainAbility Farm is the nonprofit's first project.) The Kaplans also received donations from small private foundations and a grant from Seeds of Change, which recognizes local farms and gardens providing healthy, sustainably grown food to their communities.

On the farm in Accord, roughly half a dozen volunteers with developmental disabilities—including autism spectrum disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and other social, cognitive, and emotional disabilities—come together each spring to plant and harvest vegetables. (Those without disabilities are also welcome.) They transplant seeds into soil beds, weed and care for the beds, pick and harvest the vegetables, and package and deliver them to the farm's CSA customers. Some of the volunteers live on the farm during the planting and harvest seasons; others come in for the day. Depending on his or her ability, a volunteer might work a full day, or only an hour or so.

Rachel, now 31, still lives and works on the farm—and continues to reap the benefits. “Somebody who worked with her at the beginning of the year and then again at the end of the year said, ‘Even in just this season, you can see how she takes charge of things she does,’” says Wendy.

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Rachel's years on the farm have also improved her concentration and ability to try new things. “When she has to use tools in the kitchen or learn to use a sewing machine, she has confidence and an interest in seeing that the job is done well,” says Wendy.

And other parents of adult children with autism have seen a similar eagerness and competence in their kids. One mother told Wendy, “My son likes to sleep late, except on mornings when we're going to the farm. Then he gets up and he's ready to go.”

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Wendy attributes this to the sense of purpose people get from working there. “Many young adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed, and it's hard for them to feel they're doing something valuable,” she says. “Farming gives them the opportunity to say, ‘I'm doing something really important to the health of the community.’”

The farm has something for everyone, says Wendy. “No matter what your abilities, there's a chore you can do. And you get to feel you've had a positive impact.”

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More Seeds of Support

To find a program like SustainAbility Farm in your area and for other employment opportunities for people with autism, visit Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism ( This national consortium of advocacy organizations lists local groups that provide residential, employment, and other support for adults with autism.

© 2016 American Academy of Neurology