Culver City Program Helps Autistic Adults Become Independent

Ben Verheiden, 20, says the program has been his ticket to freedom

The rate of autism continues to rise, with latest figures showing that 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with the disorder. So, what happens when these kids grow up?

For Ben Verheiden, 20, a Culver City-based program aimed at teaching autistic adults to be independent is his ticket to freedom. Among his accomplishments: learning how to ride a city bus to college.

"I was the first generation of kids that they realized had these problems," he said. "I want to be independent but at the same time I recognize that I still need help from others."

Verheiden is not in this alone, thanks to the Peer Mentor Lifestyle Coach Agency in Culver City, which paired him up with a mentor, who also has developmental disabilities.

Brett Gordon, who also has developmental disabilities, helps Verheiden learn how he can function independently in society.

The two meet once a week, and learn practical tasks like how to take public transportation, balance a checkbook, do the laundry and hold down a job. Gordon is a paid employee of the program, making him a great example.

"I understand because I’ve been there," Gordon said. "The whole reason behind this is to be able to take people, to teach them around the city, to work with them in their places, and say, you know what, we did it, you can do it."

"I love the feeling of being independent, knowing my way around. It’s nice to know in emergency," Verheiden said.

This comes as a big relief to his mom, Sonja Luchini, who wondered what would happen when she was no longer around.

"Socially, emotionally, he’s still about 14, 15 years old," Luchini said. "It’s always been a fight, always a fight. But there’s people along the way who understand what you’ve been through, take your hand and say, we can help."

Verheiden has made progress. He just started classes at West LA College and continues to be a passionate advocate for people with disabilities.

"If you give us the tools to succeed, you put us in it, we can deliver. It’s that simple," Verheiden said.

When some homeowners around the college wanted to ban the bus lines from going to the college, Verheiden testified at the City Council meeting about how devastating those cuts would be to students like him. The bus lines continue to run.

The Peer Mental Lifestyle Coach Agency receives funding from the California Department of Developmental Services and contracts with several regional centers in Southern California.

For parents looking for more information on how to access insurance and other benefits, the Special Needs Network provides training and other resources.

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