Update Dec. 8, 2014: Brandon Cramer died Nov. 24 in his sleep at his California home, according to his mother. He was 41. On Sunday, a memorial service was held on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade where he was a "beloved fixture" in the oceanside community.
Memorial held today for Brandon & it was extraordinary! Tons of people saying how much they loved my son firemen, policemen, and merchants.— Amalia Starr (@AutismMomExpert) December 8, 2014
Catch America Tonight's remembrance of Cramer Monday at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT on Al Jazeera America. Also, tune in Tuesday for a report on how early and intensive intervention may help children with a high risk of autism.
Brandon Cramer showed America Tonight around his small Santa Monica apartment, complete with entertainment center, bed and iPad – all the trappings of adult living. But getting to this point was not easy: Cramer, 40, is autistic and unable to hold down a job or drive a car because of his epileptic seizures. Still, here in this government-subsidized apartment – and with the help of Social Security – Cramer has what some parents fear their own autistic children never will: An independent life.
“I like it a lot, because I can come and go as I please,” he said. “I don’t have to worry. I feel happier.”
Cramer is at the leading edge of a coming tidal wave of autistic adults. The prevalence of autism has soared in the last two decades: In 2000, the National Institutes of Health estimated that one in 500 children had an autism spectrum disorder. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts that number at one in 88.
There are more resources and support for autistic kids today than there were in the past, but when they reach 18 or 22 – depending on the state – most special needs programs stop and families face an uncertain future. Nearly half a million autistic children will become adults in the next decade but fewer than 10 percent of autistic adults now hold full-time jobs, according to the Social Security Administration.
“I think the biggest concern is, one of them is, that he’d have something to do, like have a job,” said Molly Harris, whose 19-year-old son James has autism. “But also it’s safety, because James is naive and trusting. So we do need to work with teaching him about what’s safe and what’s not safe. Where do you go if you need help?”
Amalia Starr, Cramer’s mother, admits she made some mistakes when her son was growing up. As a toddler, his words came out jumbled and in preschool, he would play alone on one side of the classroom. Still, she “mainstreamed” him at a public school. But he was socially awkward and his classmates beat him up nearly every day. He had his shoes taken off on hot tarmac and his nose broken repeatedly.
Back then, less was known about autism – and in fact, Starr didn’t even realize her son suffered from the disorder until decades later, when she read a book that listed the symptoms. She says she immediately realized her son exhibited every single one.
Starr was determined to get the next stage right.
'That was easy!'
Cramer has now been living independently for 16 years. Because of his epilepsy, he can’t work, drive a car or ride a bike. So he spends his days walking the sunny streets of Santa Monica, running errands and fetching coffee for the local jeweler, or visiting the paramedics who have rushed him to the hospital after a seizure.
He knows to avoid situations that could be dangerous and to be careful at certain times of night. He also knows that when he feels stressed, he should go back home.
“When it gets overwhelming with things, then I go home and relax,” Cramer said. “Sometimes you get overloaded with people out here, too.”
He says if he’s feeling “blue or out of it,” he clicks his Staples EASY button that chirps, “That was easy!” or squeezes a favorite small toy that chuckles, “I feel great! It’s going to be a stress-free day today!”
Starr calls her son about once a month to check on him but for the most part, he lives independently. And since his diagnosis, Starr has made a career of consulting other parents on how best to carve a path to adulthood for their own autistic children. She wrote the book, “Raising Brandon” and speaks to large crowds of professionals and anxious parents. Cramer says he hopes to join his mother on the speaking circuit soon.
“When we as parents can understand that our children will live 75 percent of their lifetime as adults, and much of that time is without us, our job, whether they’re 2 years old and newly diagnosed or 22, our job is to help those children reach maximum independence,” Starr told America Tonight. “That’s our job. Our next job after that is to learn the art of letting go.”