An apartment confiscated from the mafia becomes a home for autistic children

An apartment confiscated from the mafia becomes a home for autistic children

A kitchen, a living room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and two balconies: 105 square meters of apartment in the heart of Concorezzo, a stone’s throw from Monza, with communal garden, concierge, cellar and garage. A prestigious home like many others, but with a decidedly unusual origin and intended use. In fact, it is a house confiscated from organized crime that the Brianza municipality has decided to make available to four boys with autism spectrum disorders. Renovation work will begin in the next few weeks to allow the young people to move into the house as early as spring.

The initiative is part of the regional plan for supporting disability “After us” and sees the involvement of Cascina San Vincenzo, the local association committed to accompanying autistic children and young people (and their families) towards social autonomy and working. The association was in fact chosen as the recipient of the keys to the apartment after the mayor of Concorezzo, Mauro Capitanio, obtained custody of it from the Prefecture. The objective will be to encourage a path of residential autonomy, in which the young participants in the project, with the support of an operator, will carry out normal daily activities, such as cooking, tidying up their spaces, going shopping, spend time alone and with the other housemates. An experiment that will lead them to gradually gain the autonomy necessary to live alone, working on the ability to adapt and maintain their own routines while respecting those of others, to communicate and manage unpredictability.

Autism spectrum disorders

The future roommates will be young people aged between 20 and 30 with medium-level autism spectrum disorders, selected from among those who have been following a process of gradual introduction to independent living for some time at Cascina San Vincenzo and the network of residential services and education training. autonomy with which the association collaborates. “They will be children who share a diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorder with very similar characteristics, including deficits in verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction, repetitive behaviors, difficulty coping with changes and interests that are limited and difficult to redirect. The degree of impairment of these areas will be such as to allow him discrete autonomous and independent living skills – explains to Salute Alessandra Ballaré, psychologist and psychotherapist, Director of the Cascina San Vincenzo Autism Center – These are disorders that generally require support: in fact, there will be an operator who will not be a security guard but a reference figure with an educational role, who will give support when needed and who will not necessarily live with them 24 hours a day”.

How to learn to become autonomous

The challenge, therefore, will be to create the conditions for these children to learn to live on their own. But how? “In general, people with autism above all need support from the environmental structure, therefore a territorial location and a very precise organization of the internal spaces of the environment that surrounds them – underlines Ballaré – Everything must be arranged in such a way as to help them to activate their skills: a bit as if the space somehow became their ally, supporting them in carrying out tasks that they would otherwise have difficulty carrying out, such as arranging their clothes in the wardrobe or preparing something to eat”.

The use, for example, of Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) techniques, such as visual aids or checklists of things to do, can help both to create a clear and orderly environmental structure and to develop and stimulate communication skills. “Let’s try to imagine one of the kids in the house who has to prepare a meal – continues the expert – The first thing he will have to do will be to check that everything needed is there, look for cooking tools, and organize himself to go to the supermarket if something is missing. In short, a set of actions that without any support could be highly complex to carry out as well as frustrating. Instead, having a check list of things to do, in which all these phases are broken down, would help him to carry out everything more easily, because it would already appear planned and organised”. The same goes for the spaces in the house in which to place objects. “If the boy has to sort out the shopping or put away his clothes in the wardrobe, it will be useful for him to resort to visual strategies: on the outside of the pantry doors, for example, you can place writings or images that recall the objects to be put away in the appropriate spaces. In this way, it will be easier and faster to recover them even when they need them later.”

The importance of a daily planner

Each tenant will have an agenda with writings and images that indicate in succession the day’s appointments inside and outside the house, so as to be able to have everything visually under control: creating expectations about what happens at specific moments of the day favors the predictability of the context, lowering the level of anxiety and worry. “In the house there will also be diaries of the actions and moments that they decide to share together – adds Ballaré – And everyone will be able to know what the other is doing or will have to do, to create a climate of serenity and tranquility and give the perception that nothing is out of their control.”

The use of home automation devices

Before the children enter the accommodation, it will be necessary to carry out some adaptation work: a bedroom will be created for the operator and the extent to which home automation devices will be installed will be assessed to facilitate certain actions, for example turning on and turn off lights and appliances, or adjust the heating. “All sequences of gestures which for those living with autism spectrum disorders are not at all automatic – underlines the psychologist – and which may require tools and supports to facilitate them”.

Integration in the territorial and social context

Furthermore, given that the house is located in a residential complex well served by public services, it will be important to create the conditions so that the four young people can develop autonomy and integration also in the territorial and social context in which they live. In fact, sharing activities are planned with the inhabitants of the condominium and nearby areas to enhance everyone’s skills, stimulate hospitality and stronger social sensitivity.

The objectives of the journey

The project, financed by funds from the “After us” project, the Pnrr and partly by the Region’s residential allowance – the first of this type in the area – will certainly be a long journey. “It will certainly be useful for us to identify the ways in which people with autism spectrum disorders can build a life plan independent of family support, and put into practice the autonomy they have acquired – concludes Ballaré – but also to understand what other objectives achieve and what needs still need to be worked on”.

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