Seeds of Independence Julie Tracy cultivates a Chicago farm—and community support—for young people with autism making the delicate transition from high school to independent living. In the Limelight
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In the Limelight  |   April 01, 2015
Seeds of Independence
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   April 01, 2015
Seeds of Independence
The ASHA Leader, April 2015, Vol. 20, 24-26. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20042015.24
The ASHA Leader, April 2015, Vol. 20, 24-26. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20042015.24
Name: Julie Tracy, MA, CCC-SLP
Title: Founder, The Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation
Hometown: Chicago
Julie Tracy’s son fought for his life while she watched helplessly. His antipsychotic drugs had triggered neuroleptic malignant syndrome, an extreme reaction in which the muscular system shuts down. It turns out John had developed bipolar disorder some time ago, but it went untreated because everyone assumed it was his autism getting worse.
“My son was diagnosed at age 2, is high-functioning and successfully made his way through public school,” Tracy says, “but he became severely mentally ill and depressed in high school—an ordeal ending in a five-week hospitalization where we almost lost him.”
Her son eventually recovered, but the episode was transformative for Tracy. Because of John’s struggles, she built a foundation to support young adults with autism spectrum disorder. She and her husband launched The Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation in 2012 to fill a gap in services for these kids.
Transitioning from an insulated high school community into independent adulthood is tough for everyone, but people with ASD are particularly vulnerable, Tracy emphasizes: “Studies show that 70 percent of young adults with ASD also have co-morbid mental health problems.”
Less than a year after incorporating, the foundation received a $1 million land donation from the Illinois Medical District. The district abuts downtown Chicago’s Near West Side neighborhood, which enjoys easy access to public transportation, retail, restaurants and community services. Tracy put the land to use right away with a pop-up garden.
“We went into agriculture for a few reasons,” Tracy says. “It’s smart economically because Chicago has a booming urban agribusiness. It’s also a way to teach and promote healthy lifestyles.” A speech-language pathologist who has worked with people on the spectrum for more than 30 years, Tracy was not surprised when she saw participants throw themselves into the project. “Farming is very structured and repetitive, and [participants] love seeing the tangible results of their work so quickly. Everything I’ve done has been with a clinical eye.”

“Farming is very structured and repetitive, and [participants] love seeing the tangible results of their work so quickly. ”

Based on the pilot garden’s strong yield and success with clients, Tracy expanded it into a farm, which put down roots last summer. The Growing Solutions Farm includes 1.2 acres of symmetrically laid out planting beds, a shipping pod cum storage shed, a wash-pack station and a shaded outdoor classroom.
Design features at Growing Success farm emphasize order and ease. Foot-high raised beds put plants in easy reach. Smooth container materials calm sensory sensitivities.
“This garden is just immaculate,” Tracy says. “It intuitively supports behavior and organizational skills for people with this disability.” Prominent labels and other visual cues clearly identify each component. And the farm-operations manager posts detailed schedules in several locations.
Growing Solutions’ inaugural season produced four months of paid employment for 20 young people with ASD, as well as 3,000 pounds of food. Paychecks aren’t the only benefit. Job and life skills, problem solving approaches and social/communication techniques are taught alongside farming.
“We teach why it’s important for them to offer a greeting, as well as how to follow an instruction or ask for help when they don’t understand,” Tracy explains. “We also tell them specifically how to handle breaks in terms of passage of time and what’s appropriate to do during that time.”
Six of those farmers now have full-time employment, while several others participate in the foundation’s independent living programs as they finish high school. “We serve a high-risk group, so we follow through to place them in permanent supportive environments,” Tracy says. “We won’t just leave them hanging.”
Farmers working the weekly farm stand learn customer-service nuances—a skill useful in practically any job.
Growing Success Farm, along with the foundation’s residence, social groups, independent living programs and ties with other community resources, has fostered many success stories. Tracy describes one young man who grappled with behavioral and psychiatric concerns resulting in repeated hospitalizations. “Now he works 25 hours a week … and hasn’t been hospitalized again since joining,” she says.
Of course, Tracy’s proudest story is that of her own son’s now stable and happier life: He works part time at Trader Joe’s, volunteers once a week at Rush University Medical Center’s Autism Assessment, Research, Treatment and Services program, lives in The Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation’s residence, participates in the foundation’s dog-walking job program, and maintains an active social life through JMTF.
As both a mother and an SLP, Tracy pushes relentlessly to grow the support her foundation offers to so many families struggling with situations like her own. “We know what these kids need,” says Tracy. “It’s not a mystery.”
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