Housing situation helps sons of UT faculty improve independence

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Photo Credit: Gabby Lanza | Daily Texan Staff

Will Johns and Berk Sutherland have two very important things in common — they are both sons of UT professors and they both live with high-functioning autism. The two family friends of more than 10 years recently reached a new milestone when they moved into a house near campus together this fall.

Ann Johns, Will Johns’ mother and art history professor, said the housing arrangement, in which the two men will live with roommates not on the autism spectrum, is designed to aid their transition into adulthood and provide them with independence.

“The point is they don’t have to live with mom and dad forever,” said Ann Johns, who owns the house.

The two men currently live with UT graduate student Jesse Easdon. Paige Dearman, Texas State recreational therapy senior, will join them in the spring. Dearman and Easdon perform no major house tasks, but provide their housemates with vital social interaction, Ann Johns said.

Easdon discovered the housing opportunity randomly, but Dearman said she has known Will Johns since 2008 through an internship working with children with autism. 

“I think that, for them, it’s self esteem and independence and realizing there’s opportunity for them,” Dearman said. “To be in a situation with him where I don’t have to be a disciplinary person, and I’m just here to support him, for me, that’s why I’m in this field in general.”

The housing situation was arranged by Ann Johns with the help of Lisa Sutherland, mother of Berk Sutherland and wife of Dan Sutherland, art associate professor at UT.

It was difficult finding housemates who understood the live-in aspect of the position and the life stages Will and Berk are in, Lisa said. Berk Sutherland currently works at Randalls grocery store, and Will Johns previously worked at P. Terry’s and is now looking for a new job.

UT special education professor Mark O’Reilly said there has been a wave of autism diagnoses in the last 10 years, and now this population is aging out of the school system. O’Reilly began researching educational strategies to promote inclusion of individuals with autism more than 25 years ago and said the living situation is a golden opportunity.

“Basically, these young adults have the opportunity to live in an independent, supported environment where they have peers who are not on the spectrum, and then another person who is on the spectrum who gives social support,” O’Reilly said.

Will Johns said he enjoys cooking and wants to make a meal for Dearman when she moves in. 

The two spend their time playing video games, watching movies and sharing meals together.

“I asked Berk, ‘What’s the best thing about living at (the house)?’” Lisa said. “He responded, ‘Having roommates.’”