Ahwatukee group proves hope for those with autism

The Hope group grew out of the Cairns family's efforts to find hope for their son. (Submitted photo)

When Lori Cairns' son J.R. was 2 years old, in 1996, the medical establishment’s understanding of autism outcomes was limited, prompting doctors to make pessimistic predictions about the quality of life those on the autism spectrum could expect.

One doctor “told me to go home and make sure he liked his room because he was going to go in and never come out,” said Cairns in the 2013 documentary, “Autism: A Family’s Journey. She said he would probably be in an institution by the time he was 17.”

So Cairns navigated her own way to help her son and other children, flying out a therapist to her home to learn applied behavioral analysis (ABA), a specialized therapy tailored to one’s behavioral needs.

The new therapy that the Cairns' sought out for their son was successful, and today, J.R. is living independently and has a job working in pest control.

In 1997, her home-based ABA sessions and community outreach turned into what is now the HOPE Group, an Ahwatukee autism agency celebrating its 25-year anniversary this July.

The HOPE Group has two sides. The clinical side offers ABA and behavioral consulting while the state services side provides habilitation and respite in addition to collaborating with Arizona businesses to find the right employment fit for their clients.

The HOPE Group is funded through contracts with the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Division of Developmental Disabilities, which leaves them subject to fluctuations in funding.

“I would say that our number one obstacle over the years has been the up and down funding that we’ve had to deal with,” Cairns said. “We would love to pay our people as much as they are worth, but that just doesn’t happen with what we get reimbursed through the state.”

Despite these challenges, being state funded has been beneficial in making treatment more accessible, as it has recently allowed clients to get trained and hired by HOPE to serve their loved ones from home.

Lori’s daughter Shelby Durfee, the director of state services at HOPE, has committed herself to the employment side of the business, which she helped open in 2020.

Durfee aims to create a “one stop shop” for high school students with autism to create their own job path before they graduate. She also aims to become a state-wide leader in providing these services.

A common characteristic among people with autism is a high fixation on a particular topic, this is something that HOPE wants clients to embrace, encouraging kids to find employment in areas that meet their passions.

“You know, I think for a lot of situations, we try to make people fit into society, or people with autism fit into society, but we also kind of need to understand and meet them where they’re at as well.” Durfee said.

Denise Burns has been there for it all. She’s seen the growth of the HOPE group from the ground up, when she sought out ABA for her now 30-year-old son Alex. Alex loves golf and through HOPE has found employment at a golf course in Tempe.

Burns is grateful for the support her family has felt throughout the years especially considering all of the uncertainty that existed when her son was first diagnosed.

“They basically told us there wasn’t much we could do. Just take home our son and make him happy, and as parents we were appalled by that,” Burns said.

Today Alex is a star employee among attendees at the golf course. Burns hears from people all the time about how much of an impression her son has made, and this warms her heart.

“I just couldn’t ever in my wildest dreams, when he was a young guy, imagine that he could have this job that he loves so much and that he’s so good at,” Burns said.

Information: hopegroupaz.com. “Autism: A Family’s Journey” is on amazon prime.

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