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PerspectAbility: Connecting Neurodiversity & Community in NWA

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When the founders of PerspectAbility met for the first time over coffee, a common theme united them: they were parents of neurodiverse children with a vision to change the perspective of neurodiversity in Northwest Arkansas. PerspectAbility’s founders wanted their children to be seen for their abilities and possibilities, especially as they grew up and became adults.

Many still misunderstand neurodiversity. Neurodiverse people see and experience the world in different ways from neurotypical people. They may have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but neurodiversity can also include dyslexia, Down syndrome and other mental health disorders. Neurodiversity means there is more than one way to see and interpret the world around us, and a neurodiverse person’s way of processing information and interacting with people is valid.

2023 tulip season at True Colors Farm

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Bentonville, PerspectAbility’s most visible project is True Colors Farm – Northwest Arkansas’s only not-for-profit tulip farm. The tulip farm opened in 2021, and each spring, it welcomes visitors to walk among the tulips and enjoy a you-pick experience. All proceeds from the farm support PerspectAbility’s mission to assist neurodiverse adults in finding space within the community for their abilities. Neurodiverse adults and young adults staff the farm. It typically opens in April, although this year, an early spring means the tulips are already blooming, and True Colors opened early.

True Colors Farm has been a successful way to raise support for PerspectAbility and spotlight neurodiversity in the Northwest Arkansas community, but the organization has had bigger goals from the beginning. The founders, Celeste Michaud, Leslye Morse, Kelli Jensen and Karah Kinkead, envisioned creating spaces for neurodiverse young adults to continue their education after high school. While 7.5 million people in the U.S. have a diagnosis of neurodiversity, only 7% of them have their own homes and services that allow them to live as independent adults.

In November, community members came together to plant over 100,000 tulip bulbs at True Colors Farm. Now those tulips are blooming for the 2024 season.

Transition Academy is PerspectAbility’s next project. The program will offer recent neurodiverse high school graduates a two-year curriculum focused on life skills to allow neurodiverse adults to transition to an independent adult lifestyle. PerspectAbility hopes to offer dormitory-style living for Transition Academy students. Once Transition Academy is running, the organization will focus on building an inclusive residential neighborhood where neurodiverse residents have access to the types of services they need to live independently.

With these goals in mind, PerspectAbility brought on its first executive director in 2023. Natalie Vowell grew up in Fayetteville and combines her love for the region with her experience raising the profiles of nonprofit organizations. “The first question I asked as executive director of PerspectAbility was ‘How do we have tulip season all year?’” Vowell says. With that idea in mind, the organization followed the theme “Grow” in 2023. Vowell joined the nonprofit on the first day of tulip season and hasn’t slowed down. The group has added two board members and recently completed the purchase of 10 acres in Bentonville, which includes the tulip farm and room for the future Transition Academy and residential neighborhood.

Vowell wants to see growth in more than just physical space, though. “In addition to training our folks, we want to help train the rest of the community on how to treat them. We’d eventually like to work with local businesses and their human resources departments. When we talk about diversity, equality and inclusion, a whole group of people is left out. Neurodiverse people sometimes have better productivity than neurotypical people, given the right circumstances. We need to show Northwest Arkansas and employers how valuable they are.”

This change in perspective reflects PerspectAbility’s original mission: “building an inclusive environment in Northwest Arkansas where neurodiverse adults can choose to live independently, continue their education, experience new opportunities and grow their community.”

But growth can’t happen without the right frameworks in place. Currently, an entire generation of kids who received a neurodiverse diagnosis are aging out of the services that have helped them learn and grow. These children received support in school from their pediatrician and therapists, but that stopped once they graduated high school. This is where PerspectAbility hopes to fill in the gaps, not just by offering seasonal employment with the tulip farm. The group recently organized an art show featuring 13 neurodiverse artists hosted by Ozark Beer Company. The art show displayed over 60 works of art, with a third of those purchased during the show. The profits went directly to the artists. One artist has even scheduled two more shows for April.

The art show is an example of one way PerspectAbility helps break down barriers for neurodiverse people. An event like this is difficult to organize, even for neurotypical artists. “We wanted a way for them to make money on their artwork the way neurotypical artists do,” Vowell says. By building Transition Academy and a neuro-inclusive neighborhood and finding other ways to support neurodiverse people, PerspectAbillity can achieve its goals of creating a community inclusive of all neurodiverse people and assisting neurodiverse people to live as independent adults.

“But we need our community members to hop on board, too,” Vowell says. To reach full inclusion, many issues must be worked through, including how neurodiverse people can safely get to work or what safe policing looks like in a neurodiverse community. PerspectAbility hopes to conquer these challenges with the community’s help. There are many ways to get involved. True Colors Farm has sponsors each year, and individuals or companies can sponsor a row of tulips, a half row, or individual workers.

Donors support community programs that allow families with neurodiverse members to connect with the community, like a recent outing to Arkadia Retrocade, where families enjoyed gaming in a public space and sharing time. Funding will also go to support Transition Academy and the residential neighborhood.

PerspectAbility has many events coming up for people to increase their awareness of neurodiversity in the community. The tulip farm is currently open and will continue through April. Check True Colors Farm by PerspectAbility on Facebook for the latest tulip updates. The Great Southern Beer Festival hosted by Ale-Truism on April 27 will benefit a number of nonprofit organizations, including PerspectAbility. Held at Walter Turnbow Park, visitors can sample brews from 14 different breweries. On May 1, PerspectAbility will be at the Northwest Arkansas Naturals Game, and a neurodiverse member of the community will throw out the first pitch.

Keep up with all of PerspectAbility’s events and opportunities by visiting perspectability.org or PerspectAbility on Facebook, and Instagram. PerspectAbility challenges Northwest Arkansas to consider how to be more inclusive of neurodiverse people while assisting those who are neurodiverse in sharing their unique abilities as part of the local community.

Photos are courtesy of PerspectAbility and used with permission. The header photo is titled “Paper Love” by artist Dana White.

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Kimberly S. Mitchell loves journeys, real or imagined. She has hiked the Inca Trail, walked into Panama on a rickety wooden bridge and once missed the last train of the night in Paris and walked several miles home (with friends). She believes magic can be found in life and books, loves to watch the stars appear, and still dreams of backpacking the world. Now she writes adventures to send her characters on journeys, too. Pen & Quin: International Agents of Intrigue - The Mystery of the Painted Book is her debut novel. Find out more at KSMitchell.com.

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