Building a Connected Community Based on research and personal experiences, an SLP strives to build a community for adults with autism. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   April 01, 2017
Building a Connected Community
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   April 01, 2017
Building a Connected Community
The ASHA Leader, April 2017, Vol. 22, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.22042017.30
The ASHA Leader, April 2017, Vol. 22, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.22042017.30
Name: Heidi Stieglitz Ham, PhD, CCC-SLP
Title: Founder, Spectrum Fusion; private practitioner; autism researcher
Hometown: Houston
There’s a stereotype that people with high-functioning autism seek to avoid in-person interaction because of social challenges.
But Heidi Stieglitz Ham believes the opposite is true for most people with autism. “I’ve seen so many people on the autism spectrum make significant gains with just a little outreach,” she says. That’s why she’s planning to build a community where adults with autism can enjoy social contact and develop a sense of belonging.
Ham’s plan began when she was a young speech-language pathologist working in Chicago-area hospitals during the late 1990s, and she was drawn to patients with autism. She maintained her devotion to this population through her studies and international work in Nigeria, the United Kingdom and Australia, and now again domestically—she’s back in the United States, in Houston.
Infusing community support
Ham’s devotion to autism led to a dream. In 2007, she envisioned a physical and support community, to be called Spectrum Fusion, where adults with autism could live independently. At the time, she was working in Nigeria and completing her doctoral project remotely through the University of Edinburgh. Her research on gestural processing in autism spectrum disorder led her to interview dozens of people with autism and their families.
She noticed a gap in services for young adults with autism aging out of school supports—a gap that particularly affected those who weren’t diagnosed until adulthood and never received services as children. This category includes Ham’s sister—who was diagnosed with autism after Ham became an SLP—and her sister’s adult son, who struggled with the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
“People don’t really understand how to interact with adults with autism,” says Ham, who set out to realize her idea of Spectrum Fusion in 2013 while living in Perth, Australia. “My sister and I came up with the idea [of Spectrum Fusion] while brainstorming for years how to best help her son. I met other families facing similar challenges with their adult children. In Perth, I started a community of adults with and without autism.”
Ham’s vision of Spectrum Fusion involves a planned neighborhood of individual homes clustered around a community building housing an autism research center. Ham hopes to collaborate with existing researchers and organizations offering support for adults with autism while also generating new resources. She envisions the center as a place where residents gather and support one another, in addition to finding guidance on careers, social skills and self-esteem.
“The collaboration aspect is so important to me,” Ham says. “I believe in the power of community.”
To discover what features prospective residents would want in their community, Ham lived in a Perth community with a group of adults on the autism spectrum and assembled a network of connections. Her dedication paid off, and she was invited to present her idea at a TEDx talk with hopes of raising awareness. Not long after the talk, however, her husband’s company transferred him to Houston, and her family moved before Spectrum Fusion had a chance to progress beyond the design stage. Ham immediately began searching for opportunities to build the community on the other side of the globe.
Rice University soon became a major partner for Spectrum Fusion through its Capstone program, which assigns teams of business school graduate students to create financial plans for local nonprofit organizations. At the end of this school year, Ham will have a completed feasibility study, a business plan, fundraising prospects and possibly a location to build her prototype community in the Houston area.

“Everybody on the spectrum is very different—that’s why it’s a spectrum—but they share a lot of the same needs.”

Creating sustainable housing
The adults with autism Ham knew in Perth all expressed a desire to live in such a community. They want a place where they feel safe talking to neighbors and enjoy easy access to resources, but those she talked to don’t want to live in a group house or facility. Based on these desires, New Zealand–based architect Charlotte Goguel suggested using prefabrication or modular building for the stand-alone houses. This approach allows each homeowner to select a somewhat customizable floorplan without escalating costs.
“Everybody on the spectrum is very different—that’s why it’s a spectrum—but they share a lot of the same needs,” Ham says. “We want to offer tailored spaces and programs to help each individual.”
Goguel considered these unique needs when designing the Spectrum Fusion community center, and those design components will carry over to the community’s houses. Key architectural features include adjustable slatted overhangs for filtered natural light, along with dimmable artificial lighting. Textiles cover many hard surfaces, such as floors, walls and ceilings, to create softer acoustics and sensory-friendly finishes.
Sustainable, nontoxic materials generate healthy indoor air quality without off-gassing harsh “new house” odors. Durability and low maintenance are also key design components. Ham hopes to get the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for the prototype Spectrum Fusion community—a prototype she hopes to replicate in other states ... and maybe even back in Australia, where it all started.
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April 2017
Volume 22, Issue 4