the story behind
sunny haven ranch
Our son Parker was born in California in 1997. He was an unbelievably beautiful baby, with long white-blond hair and big dimples. Like most first time parents, we had all kinds of ideas about what it would be like to raise this child but not a great grasp of how realistic our expectations might be. With your first child, everything is new and you have no real baseline for comparison, so watching Parker grow was both pure delight and a source of anxiety.
We knew—and were repeatedly reminded during the first years of Parker’s life—that every kid is unique and develops at their own pace. But as we watched him grow and tracked developmental milestones, we began to sense that something might be off. Some behaviors were delayed, while others were just different. As we noticed other kids his age starting to walk, Parker still hadn’t crawled, but then within a couple months he skipped straight to running and climbing. As other toddlers lurched shakily from step to step, Parker was scaling fences and tight-roping planks. His language was limited, he made minimal eye contact and generally had an unusual sense of boundaries.
When Parker was three, he was diagnosed with Autism. We felt many things in response: relief to have some answers and validation of our concerns alongside confusion and anxiety about what this diagnosis would mean for his life and ours. It was hard to watch other kids learn and progress while Parker’s development was stagnant or regressing. Among all the uncertainty, one of the few things that seemed clear was that there would be a lot of hard work in our future.
Parker is now 23, and his disability is severe even though his early intervention included top professionals and teachers with a vast knowledge of Autism and early intervention. The limited language he had as a child is now mostly gone. Today he is non-verbal, is able to manage few life skills independently, and has serious sensory challenges that leave him easily agitated. Parker is with either an aide or a parent at all times. Over the past 20 years, we’ve learned that our initial instinct about the difficulties ahead was correct, but I don’t think we realized how complex the work would be. To raise a child like Parker requires all kinds of labor—physical, logistical, and, above all, emotional.
Navigating and managing the resources required to meet even Parker’s basic needs is a full-time job. Every week we work with some combination of school programs, state services, behaviorists, speech therapists, psychiatrists, and doctors. When he was younger, Parker was out in the world every day: he went to school, was often brought along on errands (he loved the grocery store), generally included in family outings, and was never happier than at an amusement park or pool. Now with his size, strength and unpredictable behavior these activities are no longer a safe option for him. The last few years Parker has spent the majority of his time cramped up at home with limited resources for daily activities.
As Parker aged, we knew we would eventually reach a crisis point. Although being at home allows us to better control the stressors in his environment, this comes at a high cost for the rest of our family. We have learned to watch TV on mute and go outside to cough or talk on the phone. We have learned to live with the constant presence of aides but rarely feel we can host friends and family. We do whatever we can to avoid anything that might trigger him to become upset, but his aggressive behaviors continue. We have all seen and been hurt during Parker’s outbursts. At this point, our family home has been transformed into a group home to provide safety for everyone in it - those who work with him, the rest of our family, and Parker himself.
That crisis point has now been reached. Trying to balance Parker’s needed environment with a livable home for the rest of the family is extremely difficult and was made even harder by the shifts to remote work and learning during the pandemic. The fact that Parker continues to lash out is an indicator that, despite our best efforts, the situation isn’t working for him either. Our family can no longer function until we find a safe, happy and healthy place for Parker. As we have searched for a suitable living situation for Parker we have realized we are not alone. Around 40% of adults on the autistic spectrum have severe enough challenges that exclude them from finding safe, caring and independent living environments. Our current mental health system is simply not equipped to manage these types of situations.
The reality for Parker—and for the many other adults with cognitive challenges at this scale—is that there is nowhere else for them to go. They do not have a home, so we want to give them one. This is the reason we created Sunny Haven Ranch, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit group home that Parker and other Autistic adults can call their own. We want to design a unique environment that is not only safe but also fun and fulfilling for high risk adults with autism. The focus will be on providing the consistency and structure that these individuals need to thrive, coupled with accessible activities and personalized support to foster their continued development and independence.
Those with autism are required to move through a world that is generally too fast-paced, loud, overstimulating, and unpredictable for them to feel comfortable. Sunny Haven Ranch is intended to be a refuge where this dynamic is reversed: family and friends can instead come into an environment specifically designed to limit the anxiety of their autistic loved ones and interact on those terms.
We are really excited to begin this journey. As we’ve been involved with the autism community since Parker’s diagnosis, we have met other parents with similar concerns for their children’s long term future. In the U.S., 1 in 54 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and roughly 500,000 children with autism will become adults over the next ten years. There is a significant need for programs and housing options directly targeted toward this underserved adult population.
We are confident that Sunny Haven Ranch is going to be hugely beneficial for Parker and other adults with severe sensory and behavioral issues. While there are other general programs for people with disabilities, most of these are not equipped to meet significant needs nor staffed by those who understand severe autism well enough to respond effectively to the unique challenges of this disorder. Typically, when someone with a disability behaves aggressively, the standard response is for that person to be restrained, either physically or with medication, because these programs lack the resources or expertise required to address the underlying cause. Non-verbal adults with autism are often discounted as having minimal capability, so care tends to be focused on reacting to crises rather than proactively improving the individual’s quality of life so that they do not have to engage in aggressive or other challenging behaviors.
Sunny Haven Ranch will be specifically built around the needs of autistic adults, with both the physical design and the programming centered around minimizing noise, light, and other sensory disturbances and maximizing residents’ control over their environment wherever possible. The first priority and guiding principle will be respect for each individual and investment in their continued potential. Just as you and I change over time as we have new experiences and develop new interests, so do people with autism. Giving residents the right combination of independence and support to enable this need for change will provide them with the chance for a fulfilling, productive life.
In the process of being granted non-profit status, we formed a board, outlined policies and procedures, and determined the initial goals for Sunny Haven Ranch. Now we are ready for the next steps—obtaining a site, developing the property, planning the services and programs, and hiring staff. The type of group home that we are envisioning for Sunny Haven Ranch is almost non-existent, and those that do exist were started by others in similar situations. This kind of solution requires the individual family to make it happen. Your help will make this possible and will have a dramatic impact for our family, for Parker, and for others like him.
A bright future
Just as when we first received Parker’s diagnosis, we know that a new phase of hard work is about to begin. One key difference is that the dominant feeling back then was fear of the unknown whereas today it is excitement about the future. Our hopes for Parker and other future residents of Sunny Haven Ranch are the same as the hopes we have for our neurotypical sons: that they will find the people and places that empower them to be the best version of themselves. That they will keep progressing. That they will be happy.
Parker will not have children or a career. He will never write his life story, but he will still leave a legacy. Part of that legacy will be the extraordinary love that we and so many others have for him, as well as all the things we have learned by having him in our lives. And another part of Parker’s legacy will be Sunny Haven Ranch, a place where people who share his special challenges can become that best version of themselves.
Parker & the Nelson Family