New program for adults with autism opens in Woodbridge

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

With the cut of scissors, opportunities for people with Autism were born in Woodbridge. Julie Barnett hugged the mayor while her husband Al stood beside her.

About two years ago, they started looking for a program for their son, Thomas, because when he hits the age of 21, Julie said he’d age out of the school district.

“Thomas is a wonderful boy from when he was very little, always singing, always very happy, very, very extremely loving,” she said. “Other than his language barrier, he’s perfect.”

But they couldn’t find a day program in their community.

“One day I just went to my husband and I got very upset. I said we have to do something in Woodbridge and the mayor as wonderful as he is, was on board,” said Julie.

“It struck a cord. It meant something to think about these parents who have 19- and 20-year olds and they’re wondering what they’re going to do,” said Woodbridge mayor John McCormac.

The need was filled when the agency Our House brought its Hope Autism Solutions program to Woodbridge. The director, Tara Johnson, says the program helps people out of high school work on vocational training skills.

How does it work? Participants go into the community and volunteer at different sites.

“For example, we’d go to ShopRite and we help bag groceries, stock the shelves and different things like that,” said Johnson.

The group visited the Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center on Monday. Thomas was in action training in food services. Thomas’ parents said the program gives their son a chance to be part of the community.

“He absolutely loves it. His first day here we asked him what he was doing and we had more responses from him and details responses as to all the things he did throughout the day,” said Al.

They hope down the line Thomas will be able to work a few days a week.

“He wants to work in the Amazon warehouse. He’s very good technically so there are a lot of things he could do,” his father said.

From the beginning, when Thomas was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, the Barnett’s said their mission was to make sure their son had the same childhood as everyone else. That mission hasn’t changed and that’s why they fought to make this program a reality.

“I just love him so much and I just thank God that this has come to light,” said Julie. When asked what she wants others to take away from this, tearing up, she said, “Please treat them with respect and do not look at them like they’re less than.”