Innovative Fair Oaks school opens doors to young adults on the autism spectrum

Video: New Fair Oaks school focuses on autistic adults

The first U.S. branch of the U.K. Meristem school opened Tuesday, Sept. 8, in Fair Oaks in the Sacramento region. The program gives adults on the autism spectrum a hands-on education designed to teach them vocational, arts and other skills.
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The first U.S. branch of the U.K. Meristem school opened Tuesday, Sept. 8, in Fair Oaks in the Sacramento region. The program gives adults on the autism spectrum a hands-on education designed to teach them vocational, arts and other skills.

Lauren Sweet woke up Tuesday morning in an unfamiliar twin-size bed in Fair Oaks, draped in a brand new orange-and-teal bedding set. Her dorm room walls – decked with calendars, photographs and other personalized touches from her home in Sunnyvale – were a welcome reminder to the autistic 19-year-old that life as she knew it had been flipped on its head.

The smiley, curly-haired woman was one of eight students in the pilot class of the Meristem Center for Transformative Learning, a U.K.-based program for young adults on the autism spectrum that opened its first U.S. school on Tuesday. Meristem’s mission: to provide practical skills training and therapeutic education to adults ages 18 to 28 with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disabilities.

Sweet started her Tuesday cooking breakfast burritos for herself and her dorm-mate before strapping on a never-used pair of tan, leather work boots. Each step toward campus spurred a flurry of excitement.

“I love it already – and it’s only been 24 hours,” she said.

Meristem President Oliver Cheney said the cutting-edge school aims to gently guide young adults through the transition from secondary education to employment or college – a step that can be especially tricky for those with the social, behavioral and communicative challenges sometimes associated with autism spectrum disorder.

“To expect that people with autism could transition straight from high school to the workplace is unrealistic,” Cheney said. “It’s unrealistic for most neurotypical people to be able to do that. So that’s what the Meristem program is about – bridging that gap.”

Teaching at Meristem is guided by a “learn by doing” principle – the more hands-on work students can engage in, the more meaningful skills they’ll learn.

At the Fair Oaks facility, teaching revolves around agricultural labor, metal- and wood-working, culinary arts and textile work, as well as documentary film production and other skills that staff there refer to as “practical arts.” The approach was developed by the Ruskin Mill Trust, an English educational organization that runs seven similar centers for adults on the autism spectrum in the United Kingdom. Meristem is the first school to pioneer the Ruskin Mill methodology in the United States.

The founders were drawn to the Fair Oaks area for its agricultural promise and its proximity to the state capital, Cheney said. Since its arrival, several influential locals have aligned with Meristem, including former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Jane Einhorn of the advertising agency Runyon Saltzman Einhorn Inc.

The program shares a vibrant 13-acre campus with the Rudolf Steiner College, which trains adults to teach in the Waldorf school system. Its classrooms, performance spaces, bookshop and cafe are housed in pastel cottages with ornate wooden doors. Grass-lined walkways weave between buildings, under shaded willows and through lush gardens. Sounds of roaming tractors and bleating sheep ring out from the nearby campus farm and orchard, where students began their first day by picking apples and hauling compost materials.

Parents Marlene Angeli and Patrick Schiavo were in high spirits Saturday as they followed their 26-year-old daughter Marissa Schiavo, nicknamed “Rex,” to her first few activities at Meristem.

Rex has difficulty interacting socially and had been enrolled in state-supported adult day programs, which provide recreational activities and life skills training for adults. The Gold River couple said they wanted an alternative that would better help Rex integrate into society and make her more employable. At one point, they were even considering a program in Kentucky when they came across Meristem.

“We jumped on it right away,” Angeli said. “We have such a need, and it hasn’t been addressed until now. There haven’t been programs that really help these young people find a job and move forward.”

Privately funded, Meristem is so far a top-shelf option, costing $45,000 per year for commuters and $70,000 for live-in students. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and the administration plans to welcome 20 students in each class of the three-year program.

Meristem’s number one focus is preparing students for employment, whether it’s a Silicon Valley tech job or a bagging position at Raley’s supermarkets, and partners with businesses to give students hand-on experience, Cheney said.

“Our students will leave the program needing less support than when they started – and over the course of the lifetime that has a significant economic impact,” he said.

Sweet, who plays musical instruments and bakes pastries in her free time, said she hopes to someday work in a cafe or restaurant, ideally with a performance venue. On Tuesday, she intently watched her metal-work instructor as he explained how to anneal, or heat, a piece of copper to be shaped into copper nails.

“I just wanted to do something that was more fun and more of a challenge,” Sweet said. “There’s a lot I want to work on here.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola