Growing Hope for People with Autism

Jennifer Simpson aspires to expand job opportunities for people with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism at Forge Hill Farms in Pennsylvania

Chickens cluck and warble from their coop. Pigs eat happily from a trough. Rows of broccoli, zucchini, and curly kale sprout from the soil. These are typical sights and sounds on an early summer day at Forge Hill Farms, nestled among the hills of Chester County, Pa., 30 miles west of Philadelphia.

Jennifer Simpson and her husband, Scott, purchased the bucolic 36 acres in 2009, to realize his dream of starting an ornamental tree nursery. But Simpson had a vision for the future of the property, too: to develop a farm and CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture—in which customers buy weekly shares of local and seasonal food grown on the farm—that would in turn support a forward-thinking, experimental social program aimed at giving people with neurodevelopmental disorders a shot at work.

“One of the biggest problems families with a member who has autism or another neurodevelopmental disorder face is that they have services provided by the school system to assist them while they’re young. However, when that person turns 22, they lose their eligibility. It can feel like falling off a cliff. There aren’t really any good systems in place to provide resources when the services run out,” says Simpson (CAS’00), who has master’s degrees in social work and environmental studies and previously worked as a school social worker and mental health therapist. “There are people on the autism spectrum who are fully capable of working, but who end up in their parents’ basements because of a lack of opportunity.”

A discussion with a friend and colleague from her social work days inspired Simpson to consider ways she could have an impact. “We got to talking about how difficult of a diagnosis autism is for an individual, and also for a parent. We dreamed of one day starting a vocational program available to young adults past the age of 22,” she says.

Her husband’s experiences owning a landscape company also helped spark the idea to set up such a program at Forge Hill. “Employing consistent labor was the biggest challenge he faced,” she says. “I see a group of people who want to work and industries that need labor, and I think that there needs to be a connection. I think of it as a market failure.”

A Path Forward

Since 2015, Simpson has been partnering with the Discover Program, part of the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), which runs programming for young adults with neurodevelopmental disorders. Each year, CCIU sends two students, with a job coach, to help out on the farm. “We want them to own an aspect of the farm, to see something through from start to finish and get a sense of pride in their work,” says Simpson.

Her partnership with Discover and CCIU has become an integral part of Forge Hill. One project the students work on is nurturing perennial starter plants—a process that takes about a year—before selling them to customers. Proceeds from plant sales support the Discover Program. The students also maintain a cut flower garden (members who come to pick up their CSA shares can cut flowers too). “This is entirely their project. They take care of it. The flowers are beautiful and at times I think it ends up being a more rewarding project than, say, growing zucchini.”

Though a series of family commitments had taken up much of Simpson’s time in recent years—the granddaughter of noted investor John Templeton, she had a large role in the family’s charitable foundation—she’s now able to dedicate more energy to developing plans to expand the farm’s programs for young adults with neurodevelopmental disorders. Simpson says the Discover and CCIU partnership has helped her envision what might one day be possible with a vocational program on the farm. “The job coaches are teaching the students real-world job skills and also teaching us how we can develop a beneficial job readiness program.”

She sees the CSA as the perfect vehicle for teaching a broad range of agricultural vocational skills, including food production, tree nursery maintenance, and landscaping. Simpson hopes the program will be a launching pad for participants, providing them the necessary skills they need to get a full-time job placement. “My hope is that one day we have a program in place that trains young people for work otherwise not easily available to them.”

We will try to teach them a new skill if they need it, or just connect with them outside of work. And if that employment comes to an end, they’d be welcome to come back here.

Simpson anticipates that even after the person is employed at a new, permanent job, farm staff will continue to help if the person is struggling, whatever the reason. “We would want to assist all along the way and have a lifetime commitment to this person,” she says. “We will try to teach them a new skill if they need it, or just connect with them outside of work. And if that employment comes to an end, they’d be welcome to come back here and continue to work until they can find their new placement. Everyone deserves to be given a chance.”

Service to Others

As she works to launch the vocational program on the farm, Simpson has been drawing from key lessons she’s learned over the years—including at CAS.

When she got to BU her freshman year, Simpson was determined to challenge herself. While she was interested in sociology and psychology, she ultimately decided to major in English. “I wasn’t a great writer, but I knew it was an important skill that I needed. And I had this idea that, if anything, college was the time to pursue a weakness and learn how to do it better.”

That decision led to some grueling assignments over the next few years, including a particularly memorable paper on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a class with Professor Emeritus Robert Levine. “My first go at it was awful. I rewrote it, and still got a very bad grade,” says Simpson. Levine pushed her to commit to being a better writer, painstakingly reviewing Simpson’s assignments with her, allowing her to make revisions until the elements—syntax, grammar, style—clicked. She went on to take four more classes with him. “He took the time to go over my work with me. He challenged me to want to be a better writer, as opposed to a person with a good GPA. There’s a big difference. It really meant a lot to me.”

The experience influenced her decision to support BU’s Writing Program. “I think the tools for successful communication are important no matter what you want to do in life,” she says. It also taught her the importance of giving young people the chance to work hard and gain the skills necessary to succeed.

Simpson says those values dovetail with the commitment to giving back that her family instilled in her.

“My grandfather was a very successful money manager, but instead of letting that be his legacy, he contributed the bulk of his assets to three foundations that support human flourishing. And my parents were both doctors at a teaching hospital in Pennsylvania who lived out the idea of being service leaders in their volunteerism and philanthropy,” Simpson says. “I learned your profession can add to what should really be the calling in your life: service to others.”