Featured on the front page of the Santa Barbara News Press:
The Centers for Disease Control terms autism an “epidemic.” A top medical expert at the National Institute of Mental Health calls autism the fastest growing disability in the nation.
Those declarations are particularly telling for the Rev. James Billington and his wife, Julia Billington, M.D., who have two young sons termed as having “special needs,” with some element of autistic-like behavior.
The Billingtons, who live in Santa Ynez and are both graduates of Harvard University, began to realize as they studied autism that very little exists for children along the “autism spectrum disorder,” once they reach young adulthood.
Thus came the idea for “Hidden Wings,” a labor of love and an expansive concept they have melded into a newly designated non-profit organization. Hidden Wings is designed to assist young people on the autistic spectrum with higher education and career or vocational training.
The name of the organization has a number of origins, but Rev. Billington likes to say Hidden Wings will help with “Unfurling the gifts of children with autism.”
From 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, March 27, the Billingtons will sponsor “Bridges From School to Society,” a town hall meeting at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building, in the Legion Wing. Laurie Tullis, the principal of Refugio High School, will be a guest speaker. Ms. Tullis spent 10 years as a special education teacher in Kern County and specialized in full-inclusion classrooms.
“The more we have talked around the community about this, the more people with a Down Syndrome child say they have the same problem, or people who have any number of neurological issues, say the same thing.” said Rev. Billington, whose father is the Librarian of Congress. “They haven’t really found an answer.”
The Billingtons, who previously lived in San Mateo, said they’d like Hidden Wings to be a prototype.
“Some people who have disabilities or a uniqueness find it is even more difficult to find employment,” explained Rev. Billington, an Episcopal minister. “For people with neurological disorders, retardation or Down Syndrome, we want to offer the hope and sunlight. Instead of looking at it as a lodestone, this is a real upward opportunity that we haven’t realized before.”
The Billingtons are particularly motivated by the statistics on autism- some say 1 in 150 births – and by a statement from the California Legislative Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism report from 2007. The report concluded the following: “If the state does nothing, these populations will likely repeat the tragic history of the seriously mentally ill after deinstitutionalizing in California. erosions with Autistic Spectrum Disorder will be ‘served’ by a public response one way or another – humane policies and informed programs, or by poverty, homelessness and a dehumanizing criminal justice system.”
What they hope to create with Hidden Wings is a way for local business people to interact with the yon people and perhaps mentor and introduce them into the workplace. That, the couple says, would create a path to careers or independent lives, rather than having young adults forced into dependence on parents or society.
The Billingtons and their supporters say Hidden Wings would involve consultants working with teachers and parents to design a specific plan for that transition – whether it be from high school to work, higher education or vocational training. the consultants would help the students as they began training in local businesses, non-profits, or even government agencies, Rev. Billington said.
“We’re helping to make a future for boys like ours, a future that involves growth and learning and contribution,” explained Rev. Billington, who previously was the director for the Appalachia Habitat for Humanity.
Parents who become involved in Hidden Wings would have their children evaluated for particular talents and aspirations, as well as any difficulties they might have interacting with the public or in certain social situations, the Billingtons said. Potentially, an individually designed program for training and eventual job placement would be created. They might even be able to offer training in areas such as understanding social cues during interactions at lunch or on coffee breaks, appropriate grooming and other elements that would help with success, Rev. Billington said.
The couple, who have four sons, expect to offer such services for free, and are looking for volunteers and financial assistance. They’d like to create a specific area where the youngsters could practice their skills without ridicule or anxiety.
“We’d give them a place where they’d have a community,” Rev. Billington said. “Ultimately, we want them to have some life where they can function independently, so they’re not just in a home with a caregiver.”
Hidden Wings has “become our passion,” said Dr. Billington, who works as an internist at Sansum Clinic.
Robert Coles, a psychiatry professor and the James Agee professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University has known the Billingtons for three decades. He calls their endeavor a focus on one of the country’s greatest needs, “opening the expanse of possibilities to those people casually labeled as autistic, but bearing each, a unique gift. This couple has a rock solid commitment, borne of their own experience; they have the highest ethical standards, and have worked tirelessly for over a decade in bringing out the unique gifts, rather than settling for the outward obstacles of these youngsters.”