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Proposed residency for adults with autism in jeopardy

Thursday, February 23, 2017 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The future of a residential facility for adults with autism is in limbo after a vote by a city of Austin commission.

Autism Center Austin’s proposed home is 40 acres of an 82-acre lot just south of FM 2222 in West Austin. The owner of the land, Berta Bradley, recently split the lot, gifting half to nonprofit Autism Trust USA and hoping to sell the other to MileStone Community Builders, which plans to build high-end single-family homes on the land. But project representatives say it’s an “all-or-nothing vote.”

Bradley’s own 47-year-old son, Kent, has autism.

“(Bradley) has the need to provide for the long-term care of Kent,” said Bradley’s lawyer, Jeff Howard, to Zoning and Platting commissioners Tuesday. “And that involves the sale of this real estate.”

The developer reached a deal with Bradley to fund the center’s site improvements and the first building and to put away a portion of the home sales in an endowment to help sustain the center.

“For 19 years, I’ve been interviewing families around the world and visiting centers to talk about what we’re going to do when our children are adults,” said Polly Tommey, who founded the nonprofit behind the proposed Autism Center Austin. She has said the center could serve as a template for others. “First of all, we will not be giving mindless psychotropic drugs like so many others do. We will take them. We will find their skills. Every single person, no matter if you’re verbal or not, has a skill or gift in life. We just have to find it.”

In what was often emotional testimony, parents spoke Tuesday on what a residential facility for adults with autism could mean.

“These children are going to be on the streets,” said Heidi Carabine, whose 21-year-old son has autism. “They’re going to be latchkey kids. They’re not going to be protected. They’re going to be harmed. You guys have the chance to vote yes to this project that can keep these children alive and thriving and to bring out the best of their abilities.”

But while commissioners approved the zoning change needed to build the residential center for adults with autism, they could not do the same for the proposed housing development. Commissioners said they were concerned about the proposed density of the development. Neighbors were concerned about what that could mean for traffic. A traffic study conducted by city staff found that any increased traffic was not enough to oppose the development on those grounds.

The proposed Autism Center Austin would be run by Tommey and her husband, Jonathan, who care for a 20-year-old son with autism along with Bradley’s son, Kent.

Polly Tommey holds widely debunked beliefs regarding the cause of autism. In an interview posted to YouTube, she talked about how she regrets not questioning vaccine safety when her son was a child.

“I researched his cot, because I didn’t want him to die of cot death,” said Tommey. “I researched his crib, his car seat, his food, everything, to be the perfect mother. But I didn’t once question that there could be a problem with vaccines because my doctor didn’t say that there ever could.”

The Centers for Disease Control has adamantly argued – with the emphasis on numerous studies showing as much – that there is no link between vaccines and autism.

It’s unclear how these beliefs will affect the services the Autism Center Austin provides. Representatives for the Tommey family did not make them available for comment Wednesday.

Tommey also founded the Autism Media Channel, whose website features at least five videos starring Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield published a study, which has since been widely debunked, linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Wakefield, who now lives in Austin, was stripped of his medical license in the U.K.

Tommey is listed as a producer on Wakefield’s documentary, Vaxxed, which claims he was “falsely accused” of starting an anti-vaccine movement. The document centers on a so-called effort by the CDC to cover up a “causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.” The documentary was pulled from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The proposed autism center straddles Districts 6 and 10 in Northwest Austin. District 6 City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said a person’s beliefs is not the concern of city government when it comes to zoning cases.

“Zoning cases are about size and nature of buildings and traffic impact and park impact and community impact,” said Flannigan. “Whether or not someone is going to be promoting a bad theory, unless they’re doing it at a certain decibel level, I’m not sure that that falls under the applicable ways to zone property.”

Council Member Alison Alter, who represents District 10, did not return a request for comment.

The zoning changes for the center and the development head to Council next, unless the developer withdraws the application.

“This definitely puts the future of the Autism Center Austin in jeopardy,” wrote a representative of the developer in an email statement. “We are going to work hard to find a solution so we can build homes families can afford and a desperately needed center for adults with autism.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Audio from McGlinchy’s KUT piece is embedded below:

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